Octavia Hill cries wolf?

As my family hold 3 National Trust life memberships I feel emboldened to add a few words to this week’s spat between Inside Housing blogger Colin Wiles and the National Trust’s Assistant Director of External Affairs Ben Cowell over the draft National Planning Policy Framework.Colin’s ‘crying wolf’ gambit is that the NT and the Campaign to Protect Rural England have been scaremongering about housing development in the countryside and are in denial about how many of the new homes we need will have to built on greenfield land.  Colin supports the NPPF’s plan-led approach, the presumption in favour of sustainable development, and the ‘no-return to a blanket brownfield-first policy’ and argues that the planning system has acted as a brake on growth.

NT’s ripost, ‘the Octavia Hill defence’, is that the NPPF will lead to bad developments in the wrong places and that they are not against growth – and indeed have supported and even undertaken housing development in the past.

My starting point is that a huge increase in housing development, and especially affordable housing development, is needed but the NPPF is not the right way to go about getting it.  People seem to be supporting NPPF because it is better than nothing, and for the housing lobby it is a way of avoiding disagreeing with the Government on everything.  The danger is that NPPF sets up battle lines between NIMBYs and developers which will not be resolved in favour of the principle of building the right number of homes of the right type in the right places.  It is a framework of rules but it does not set out a process for determining how many homes, and how many affordable homes, are needed nationally, regionally and sub-regionally, and then building those numbers into local plans.  Local councils are too variable in their politics, capacities and abilities to undertake the strategic development role that NPPF envisages for them.  If some deliver and some do not the total will be inadequate.

Colin is right to argue that many – most – of the new homes will have to be built on greenfield land,  but the principle of ‘brownfield first’ is still right.  The Government is wrong to have abandoned Labour’s hugely successful target for building on brownfield land.  It was striking that in all the work done for Ken Livingstone’s London Plan and London Housing Strategy the evidence told us that there were huge volumes of unused and underused land in London and that the capital had real capacity to build new homes for Londoners, especially around new transport infrastructure, regenerating areas of the city without degrading green spaces (which Ken was equally keen to protect and enhance).  Although some sites are really hard and expensive to develop, it seems right to me that developers should be under pressure to re-use land in existing urban settlements first.  They like the profits that come from greenfield sites a little too much to be given a free hand.

The other word that is emphasised insufficiently in the argument between Colin and Ben is affordability.  The country, and the south east in particular, already has too many sprawling estates of executive houses taking up large volumes of former green land at very low densities.  This was better controlled during Labour’s period in office through the stronger system of regional planning and the emphasis on achieving a proportion of affordable homes.  The Tories care not one jot about this and neither do many local authorities covering less urban areas.  Too often the interests of NIMBYs and developers coincide in agreeing not to build any affordable homes.

Ben makes much of the fact that Octavia Hill was one of the NT’s founders, as if that provides some sort of assurance now in the centenary of her death.  History is no guarantee, and it is more salient that the NT have a very close association these days with CPRE, an organisation that does not in my view have progressive leanings.  There are also dangers in the NT adopting an aggressive campaigning stance and claiming to speak on behalf of its millions of members when it is hardly an open democratic organisation with popular participation.  Nor does it speak on behalf of suburban Britain where many of the new homes will actually be built or on behalf of the urban poor who ultimately have most to lose if the policy goes wrong.  The NT at present reminds me of the AA, which claims to speak on behalf of millions of motorists but is just another private right wing lobby group.  Colin makes a good point that organisations that are more fully engaged in the rural economy are more amenable to the NPPF.

The NPPF is being revised and we will see what the Government comes up with next.  At present the NPPF fails as a policy, but not for the reasons advanced by NT.  At its heart there is a core contradiction, trying to combine a national policy – generally in favour of development – with a localist approach – which at best will be highly variable as local councils and communities respond to developers’ proposals.  And it does next to nothing to ensure that genuinely affordable homes will be built.

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7 Responses to Octavia Hill cries wolf?

  1. Pingback: Marching on « Richard Wilson Ecology

  2. Thanks for your comments and I’m glad if it helped move the debate along.

    Ben takes me to task on just one thing – my complaint that the NT claims ‘to speak on behalf of its millions of members’. The word ‘claims’ might be too strong but the campaign is a big feature on the website – and talks about what ‘we’ are doing. Many of us are not necessarily part of ‘we’ in this case.

    It is clear to me that when Simon Jenkins or Fiona Reynolds speak about planning they get on TV and in the papers because they lead an organisation with 4m members. Their authority and the level of interest in what they have to say stems directly from that. That’s why NT is a more significant lobbyist than CPRE. But they have said rather a lot and as far as I know the membership has not been consulted on its views in any significant way. Participation in elections in the NT is also tiny. I also assume that membership fees go to pay for the campaign.

    It’s not about being political, I have no problem with charities campaigning for properly arrived at positions, but getting into bed with CPRE makes many of us extremely suspicious.

  3. Jim says:

    I’d be interested to hear the National Trust say where they think the new homes we need should be delivered, since they’ve been so vocal about where they shouldn’t.

    On that subject, the recent IPPR report “We must fix it” makes a compelling argument for reviving the new towns development model as a means of ensuring quality and sustainability while also boosting volumes by separating the roles of land assembly/delivery and housing construction. The new towns model may also be the kind of thing that could attract large scale institutional investment into housing, which is rightly wary of the current, highly volatile mainstream housebuilding industry. Finally, this approach may offer a way to transcend the current oppositional modes of discourse (developers vs locals, greenbelt vs brownfield, etc) and get the high quality, sustainable homes nearly everyone says they want.

    Perhaps I’m being far too optimistic, in which case let’s at least have a debate about it.

  4. Paul Edwards says:

    Indeed the Conservatives have often characterised NIMBY-ism as Left Wing in the past. The nub of the issue is that we need urban and rural planning guidance that delivers for communities not just for developers whose bottom line has to be profit and who have not shown much understanding of the wider debate beyond its effect on their bottom line. They are certainly not interested in producing affordable housing, unless forced to. We need a planning system that we, as individuals and communities, can trust to deliver new and appropriate housing where it is needed and to protect our rural and urban environments. There is absolutely no reason, with intelligent planning regulations, that we should not have both. The Coalition’s current proposals certainly do not deliver this. They are essentially the charter for uncontrolled development that everyone accuses them of being. Verbal assurances of protection are not enough. What we all need to see is regulations in black and white. The old regulations were not so broken that they needed sweeping away. A little tweeking would have done fine unless the aim really is to allow uncontrolled development and promote private profit at the expense of communities and the environment. Given the Coalition’s general track record, this is highly probable. After all, they are True Believers who fervently believe that Free Market solves everything.

  5. Pingback: Much-needed nuance in the NPPF debate « ntplanning

  6. Ben says:

    This is a really important debate, and we welcome it. There is a great deal in what you say that we in fact agree with. In particular, we agree with the broad argument that the NPPF and Localism Act contain potentially contradictory impulses. It ought to be possible to combine promotion of growth with promotion of localism, but so far the proposed arrangements look too much like they could lead to the sort of ‘planning by appeal’ that characterised earlier eras. So we agree that more should be done to strengthen the ‘duty to cooperate’ and to promote wider-than-local planning. We also agree with you on the need for a brownfield first approach.

    Where I take issue is where you claim that the National Trust claims ‘to speak on behalf of its millions of members’. Could you point me to an example of where we have done that? We have been very careful not to claim to speak on behalf of our 4m members. We in fact set up a separate petition for people to sign if they agreed with our campaign (over 220,000 did so http://bit.ly/sLA9VH).

    We are a completely apolitical charity (the Charity Commission would have something to say if we were not so), and our membership reflects a broad span of views and opinions that we would never try to second guess. We share many of the same concerns as the CPRE, but the main difference between the two organisations is that we own a significant amount of land, and therefore have a huge role to play in local economies (particularly in rural areas). We are directly engaged in rural economic issues (see our blog: http://bit.ly/uvx0Vw), and do so in ways that demonstrate how we can combine economic prosperity at the same time as enhancing and protecting special places for ever and for everyone.

    We look forward to the debate continuing and – more importantly – to a new planning system that is fit for purpose, that helps deliver the jobs and houses that are now needed, but does so in the right way and in the right places.

    Ben Cowell, Assistant Director, External Affairs, National Trust

  7. It is long overdue, perhaps too late that the ‘spat’ which has been raging between Colin Wiles (who has successfully become the social media spokesman for the pro NPPF camp) and the NT has finally enabled a public exchange. I have become increasingly fearful that the ‘collaring’ of the campaign by the NT and CPRE (and possibly behind the scenes other heavyweight NGO involvement), as well as the Telegraph will lead to a decision by DCLG to placate these groups using daft ideals such as ‘biodiversity offsetting’ rather than tackling SD head on. The draft NPPF needed polishing, indeed if it had contained a definition of SD and referral to existing conventions etc., it would have been fine – but the debate has proved that the chasms are much deeper and wider than first thought or were possibly never even realised – whose fault is that? Not the DCLG. Thus the debate is needed and to progress with the housing issue this needs open argument and cross liaison as soon as possible by absolutely ALL with an interest.

    To say the NT staff and voice involved in the NPPF campaign are right wing is politicising the debate further, which is regressive – I think it is unfair to automatically assume ‘NIMBY’ = right wing, which certain media have played to and sold on. The people who live in social housing have as much right to being a NIMBY and often are and there is nothing wrong in this. As one commentator on the Save Our Woods site stated – the NT campaign would be much more palatable if it was ‘planning with people’ rather than ‘planning for people’.

    The ‘brownfield first’ option is not as black and white as many make it out to be – ‘Garden Grabbing’ was a shameful practice resulting from a limp set of guidelines and the decision to continue assistance by the govt’ to help towards remediating contaminated sites is very necessary. I was stunned by Mary Creagh’s comments about development on contaminated land – because fundamentally if we are to truly embrace sustainable development in areas of high population then we must allow engineers & landscape professionals and practitioners the freedom to find a solution to tackling these ‘black holes’ in our urban environment.

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