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.