6 December 2012

Pig ugly thinking

I’m reluctant to admit it, but it took me a few days to build up the courage to watch Nick Boles’ planning piece on Wednesday’s Newsnight. In my defence I’d read a great deal of the ensuing coverage, but my gut reaction was similar to hearing that Lindsay Lohan is back in the papers: trepidation combined with an awful feeling that it almost certainly isn’t good news.

Firstly, the positives. In an age where the perception is one of politicians not being in touch with the general public, Boles demonstrated a sound understanding that home ownership is still the foundation of people’s aspiration. And he is spot on in identifying immigration and slow house-building rates as a terrible combination – something that the previous Labour government completely dropped the ball on. He also realises that developers are failing to build homes that excite, with only 25% of buyers interested in new build properties.

Unfortunately talk of people’s rights to a ‘home with a little bit of ground around it to bring your family up in’ breezily dismisses some rather more fundamental difficulties. Paxman’s questioning was incisive, particularly in pressing Boles as to what his proposal actually meant. Developing 3% of the countryside doesn’t sound much, but talk of building over countryside equivalent in area to two new Londons in the next twenty years is far less appealing, particularly when you consider that many of the fields being sacrificed are in the already densely populated south east, where the demand for housing is highest and the roads already heavily congested. Boles could have fired up the public’s imagination by declaring war on the swathes of vacant houses, or the brownfield sites that are capable of taking half a million homes in southern England alone. Mind you, it's a great time to be a farmer – the fields you and your predecessors have worked for centuries don't amount to much in the Planning Minister's eyes, and are best sold to the friendly developer who is enthusiastically waving his chequebook at your land.

Poundbury fire station
(2009 finalist for the Carbuncle Cup) 
Likewise Boles’ description of ‘pig ugly’ architecture smacked of the Prince of Wales’ taste in buildings. Unashamedly traditional Poundbury hasn’t been a success, despite a concern for beauty, and it is simplistic to point to old buildings and argue that we need to take style lessons from the history books.’Old’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good’, as anyone who remembers the properties demolished during the slum clearances will remind you. If Boles is serious about sorting out the housing problem in the next two decades, he should concentrate less on aesthetics, and more on raising design and build standards, as buyers will sacrifice the romance of a 100+ year old building for the ease of living in well designed, energy efficient homes that the government can deliver by imposing tougher building regulations. I lived in Stockholm for a year, where bringing up children in a central city apartment is the norm: having a family means finding a larger apartment nearby, rather than the London trend of fleeing to the suburbs.

What I found most troubling though was the notion that people had a right to some sort of suburban idyll. This is patronising tosh and intellectually lightweight. Boles’ notion of a right to a house with a garden is merely a prescription for how he thinks we should live our lives: I’d feel far more comfortable taking to Paxman about spacious, warm homes that are cheap to run and relatively close to the economic hub than some twee notion that harks back to pre-industrial Britain. One of the residents interviewed helpfully pointed out that we don’t live in an ideal world, advice that Boles would be wise to take onboard. Such a world would iron out many of the competing work / life tensions that determine where we live, but is also inherently impossible – my personal ‘ideal’ would be a lovely little cottage with an Aga, ten minutes bike ride from the centre of London, and next to ancient woodland.

Inevitably I have to compromise, as do millions of others, as the failure to build decent one and two bedroom apartments in the hearts of our cities has seen market forces driving the conversion of many family homes into sub-standard flats. This in turn reinforces the British public’s perception that what they really want is a cottage as far away as possible from our poorly designed urban areas, and discovering when they get there the misery of long commutes, high fuel prices, expensive season tickets and a feeling that the garden nice Mr. Boles gave them might not have been the quality of life game changer they’d quite expected.

First published by Platform 10 on December 6th, 2012