It’s a truism that all current settlements were once new settlements. Were there NIMBYs when Gloucester was founded by the Romans, when Oxford was established in Saxon times or when Henry 1 established a monastery and a new settlement at a crossing of the Thames in what became Reading? How is it that people living in existing settlements feel so strongly that they have the right to veto anyone new coming along, when their own property was once a new one that might have infringed on someone else?
A new report from the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) examines what conditions are necessary to make it possible to create new settlements in England. The report is a good summary of the current, but decades old, problem of housing under-supply. It argues that there is a multiplicity of reasons for the chronic failure of housebuilding – not just planning, not just restrictive green belt policies, not just the profit-motivated policies of the volume housebuilders, not just local opposition, not just lack of effective demand, not just the petty restrictions on borrowing by councils to build new homes – but all of these things and more contribute to the problem. It reinforces my view that there is no silver bullet, and that undersupply can only be solved by a truly comprehensive and strategic approach. It often seems that those who obsess about any one issue seem to be doing so to divert blame from themselves (it’s not us, say the builders, it’s the planners; it’s not us, say the planners, it’s the lenders; and it’s everyone but us, says the Government, because we’ve deregulated the system and cut red tape).
The report traces the story of new settlements over the last century and a half, from the imaginative interventions of philanthropists like Cadbury and Rowntree, to the inspiration of Ebeneezer Howard and the Garden City movement, to the post-WW2 overspill programme, to the new and expanded towns movement, to the unfulfilled ambition of the Eco-town programme. Whether or not previous residents opposed the development of Letchworth or Welwyn Garden Cities I don’t know, but it is hard to imagine them being built under current conditions.
To try to answer the question ‘how can we create the conditions for new substantial settlements to be built?’, BSHF’s recommends better understanding of the impact of recent new settlements, especially in the overspill and new town periods, trying to develop political consensus, the creation of a single national strategic spatial plan for England, strengthening the ‘duty to co-operate’ in planning, establishing a powerful body with powers to manage disagreements between authorities, making sufficient public finance available for upfront infrastructure, setting up new settlement partnerships involving communities, clear Government messages to set the debate, and better communication of housing supply problems to the public.
Most of these things will help, but I was left with the feeling that the recommendations were rather anodyne and inoffensive, perhaps because such a wide range of actors, including Government, were involved in the BSHF’s consultation. The report tiptoes around key issues like land prices, risk-averse profit-maximising builders and the Government’s dilution of policies requiring affordable housing to be built. It acknowledges that more needs to be done at the ‘larger than local’ level but fails to identify the Government’s abandonment of regional spatial strategies as an error. RSSs were not a roaring success, and there were major tensions around their proposals, but they held promise as a creative mix of top-down and bottom-up and needed another decade to be fully effective. They were far more likely to achieve something than the current confused approach that ranges from central Government hectoring, petty interference and expensive bribes to localism gone mad.
In city or in country, I would be inclined to be a NIMBY too if a modern developer package of expensive but profitable houses and a trivial amount of affordable housing for local people came my way. Under current policies, I would be concerned that any new settlements would be little more than a few acres of executive homes within reach of a fast train to London, unlike the genuinely mixed communities that were created in the Garden Villages or the New Towns.
Although the report is about new settlements, it would be wrong for anyone to see this area of policy as ‘the solution’, any more than the other current hobby horse, building on green belt land. The search for a silver bullet invariably ends in failure. We need policies that will tackle the shortage in all types of areas: intensifying existing cities and towns as well as expanding existing settlements, especially those with good communications, and building new ones. None of these is enough on its own.
Even in the most hard-pressed place, London, successive land capacity studies have shown more land to be available or potentially available than many thought possible. However it is often expensive or difficult to develop, suffers endless delays, or needs intensive work on site assembly. More imagination would also help: for example, London and other cities are replete with single storey buildings with nothing on top and tens of thousands of acres of car parks (I have never understood why cars need to be stored at ground level when people can be stacked on top of each other, it should be the other way round). Large retailers like Tesco and Sainsbury’s are beginning to see the potential above their stores and this breakthrough could lead to thousands of new homes being provided.
As regional planning has been abandoned (except in London, where it has become a negative force under Boris Johnson), the BSHF’s proposal for an English national spatial strategy is an intriguing idea. There is a strong case for a long term national infrastructure plan, including housing, that looks 20 or even 50 years ahead. I might be more convinced by the case for HS2 if I believed the Government’s claim that it will help reduce the gap between the north and south (rather than just making it easier to get to London). The answer to the questions ‘how many new settlements do we need, and where?’ may emerge from the bigger question ‘what do we want the country to look like geographically in 50 years’ time?’