The problem with house building...
Country Life UK|July 28, 2021
Housing development is conditioned by concerns that have nothing to do with creating attractive or sustainable places to live. Clive Aslet explains this scandalous situation and suggests what we might be able to do about it
Clive Aslet

WHY is most new housing in Britain so awful? To some people, this will seem a highly prejudiced question, implying that development is necessarily a bad thing. They may even claim that it ignores the manifest unfairness of a society in which the older generation owns large houses and youngsters can’t afford anything. Yet to ignore the low aesthetic quality of most house building simply exacerbates the problem. A recent survey showed that two-thirds of the population would never buy a new home. That’s surely a devastating judgement, given the effort to get more new homes built. Public animosity is one factor in Britain’s woefully slow rate of delivering them. When local people fear that development will spoil their surroundings, they oppose it. The tortuous nature of planning creates delay and reduces supply. Government attempts to speed up the process cause it to lose by-elections in the SouthEast. Clearly, the system would work more smoothly if new housing estates were liked. What are the factors at work?

Short-termism

LET’S start with the most fundamental: the Government, volume house builders and even local people operate on a timescale that is far too short to produce good results. A change in the planning guidance given to local authorities two years ago has increased the period for which they plan from five to 15 years, but some have yet to catch up— and even 15 years is inadequate. Only large schemes can deliver the infrastructure— shops, schools, GPs’ surgeries—that make a suburb self-sustaining.

Given that house builders are unlikely to deliver more than 100 houses a year, not least because the market won’t absorb more, a development site executed over five years will necessarily be a housing estate. It will not add anything by way of amenity to the town or village to which it’s attached; on the contrary, it will put an extra burden on roads, schools and GPs’ surgeries. When one housing estate is added to another, the size of the whole will grow, but without the necessary benefits of green spaces, infrastructure and much else. Short-term planning, in other words, results in the multiplication of toxic housing estates, which leech off existing town centres, encourage high-carbon lifestyles and provide little beyond dormitory accommodation.

It is easy to blame the planners and the house builders for this predicament

It is easy to blame the planners and the house builders for this predicament, but local opinion is also an issue. Take Framlingham in Suffolk, one of England’s most beautiful and historically interesting market towns; over the years, it has been exceptionally well cared for, so that the immediate vicinity of the market square is well-nigh perfect. Eight years ago, the architect Mark Hoare, who lives nearby, sought to preserve the future of the town by preparing a plan that identified development sites not for the five-year window then in place, but 150 years. ‘I was trying to be realistic and look at the likely rate of the town’s expansion, so we could prepare for it. If you plan ahead, you can get facilities such as drainage, ecological provision, landscaping and the routes that will encourage residents to walk or cycle to the town centre to reduce the pressure on parking.’ But Mr Hoare’s intelligent and imaginative scheme was rejected by an anti-development lobby that—in defiance of Government edicts and population growth—wanted Framlingham to stay just as it is. Or rather, was.

Several sites identified by Hoare as part of his plan have, indeed, been developed, but merely as housing estates, without any of the advantages that a coordinated plan would have given. It is difficult to retrofit a housing estate with the infrastructure that ought to have come with forward planning; in 150 years, Framlingham may well have sprawled to the predicted size, but an opportunity will have been missed.

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