Which four-letter acronym is worse for the housing crisis – the CPRE or the TCPA?

The world’s first roundabout, Letchworth Garden City. Image: Jack1956/Wikimedia Commons.

Many housing activists, and this magazine, have often blamed the Campaign to Protect Rural England for exacerbating Britain’s housing crisis: the CPRE denies the housing shortage and wants to continue the ban on houses on the edge of British cities. But I propose another culprit: the Town & Country Planning Association (TCPA).

The TPCA was founded in 1899 by Sir Ebenezer Howard, founder of the garden cities movement and, true to the aims of its founder, spends most of its time lobbying for new towns. Sadly that seems to be at the expense of literally every other form of development. 

Simply put, it seems to be strangely allergic to housing density. According to its Vice President David Lock CBE, suggestions that it should be easier to build apartments in low density suburbs amounts to “garden grabbing”. Any attempt to densify existing sprawl is simply for the benefit of “transient childless households”, who in turn undermine the life of existing suburban communities. Mr Lock’s charming analysis neglects to mention that half the family homes in London are already occupied by professionals sharing. 

As recently as 2007, the TCPA Journal claimed that ‘There is little market evidence that buyers want to live in developments with densities at over 70 dwellings per hectare’. They must be right – after all, the denser parts of cities, like Mayfair for example, are well known for being extremely cheap and undesirable. 

To push this point further here is an image of all the times densification is mentioned on their website. 

I have nothing against new towns or garden cities. However, it is a problem when you are so fixated on one solution to Britain’s housing shortage that you dismiss all others. 

Creating new towns is difficult. We haven’t done it since 1970, and there is a good reason for that: it turns out locals often don’t appreciate having a conurbation of several hundred thousand imposed in their area by government decree. Scream NIMBY all you want, but the fact is that no government has considered it worth provoking this level of backlash for the last 50 years. 

Granted, some politicians occasionally talk about building “garden cities”. However, like the infamous phrase “brownfield site”, this mostly appears a rhetorical device by politicians to be able to say they can build homes – just in some undefined place which won’t irk the voters. When these politicians are in office and actually have to decide on a location it becomes too difficult and the whole enterprise collapses. 

This fact is further reinforced by the fact the TCPA won’t publish the locations for the new towns it wants to build – which I can only assume is because it would be too controversial. However, the suggested locations for the TCPA’s new towns were revealed in a book written by former chairman Sir Peter Hall on his deathbed. If your policy proposals are so controversial that they cannot be uttered until your dying breath, is there really any chance of a politician who needs re-election putting them into practice? 


If you are promoting politically impossible solutions to the housing crisis whilst simultaneously blocking the adoption of other reforms which might work, you are restricting housebuilding. You are preventing millions of homes being built while building nothing. There's a five letter word for that beginning with N. 

Plenty of scorn has been poured on organisations like CPRE for its economically illiterate policies. But the “new towns or bust” stance of the TCPA is equally ridiculous, because it ignores 50 years or so of housing history and politics showing that it is extremely difficult to build new town projects in a society with a homeowner majority. It seems to want to solve our housing shortage through an impossible dream of returning to the policies of 1960, when there were far fewer homeowners.

Belittle the CPRE all you want, and I have – but at least it occasionally shows some flexibility, particularly when it comes to building in areas far away from their donors. It is happy to meet members of the YIMBY movement and have an open mind about the YIMBY proposals on Better Streets, for example. Not quite the declaration that “perhaps it's not a good idea to make housing so insanely scarce that we have the most expensive housing in the world” we were looking for, but at least it’s a start. 

So, ultimately who is worse: the organisation obsessed with banning new houses in the countryside, or the one obsessed with banning new houses in existing cities?

I declare that as each organisation pursues a policy line that makes the housing crisis impossible to solve. They are both awful. 

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.