UK Politics

Could better-looking homes solve housing shortage?

  • 29 November 2012
  • From the section UK Politics
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Bath street scene

Can the great British housing debate be resolved by a big push on what new houses look like - and if their appearance could be improved, might we see more of them built?

That's the contention of the newly appointed planning minister Nick Boles in his interview with our programme. He debated it on Wednesday's Newsnight along with a panel of experts - architects, residents and house builders - with, clearly, different points of view.

It was the first of a two-part series on the programme where we test Nick Boles' plans for building in the UK. The next will be run in a fortnight and we'll hear from the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England among others.

Boles starts from the perspective that, in his role, he must do more to free up planning.

In the last year we have witnessed a bitter battle over planning reform with the government and their opponents, including the National Trust, fighting each other to a standstill. What was born was the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

What has made news so far is that in his interview with us, the new minister says the headline aim should be, over the next 20 years, that land equivalent to a third of that we currently occupy across the country must be released - if we are to begin to address this country's chronic housing shortage.

This will mean, he says, that while the green belt will be protected, other land - open land or "greenfield" - will have to be brought into play.

The government's new policy now calls for brownfield to be built on first - i.e. land often in town centres, and quite unloved - but makes little mention of greenfield, which is land that has never been built on, or where the remains of any structure have blended into the landscape over time.

We can pick at how much a third more really is - right now various experts put us at occupying anywhere between 6% and 10% of land - homes, roads, parks, everything. Boles' point is that it is not actually that high as things stand.

But the key idea is that greenfield is now up for grabs.

Unaffordable luxury

This idea is contained within the NPPF, but it is not something that has been particularly clearly spelt out until Wednesday's programme. And it is something that has not gone down well with some of the people who have emailed me - that just because land is not in a green belt, doesn't mean that it should not be kept green and pleasant.

Boles believes that such protections for greenfield land is a luxury this country can't afford. It's about generational equality, he argues: if people are to stand a chance of getting on to the housing ladder, then more land must be got on to the housing market.

And so he has turned his attention to how he thinks you can begin to persuade people typically hostile, that they in fact might not mind more homes coming to a field near them.

He argues in our film that if design can be improved, it is possible that - just as with the design of somewhere like the Lincolnshire town of Stamford in his own constituency - people might start to accept new homes. When they were built, the beautiful houses of Stamford were really quite affordable and they served all sorts of people in the community, not just the rich landed earls.

Right now we are a long way from that. His argument goes like this: because there is a relatively short supply of land on the market, a handful of housing developers dominate the market. And because of the expense of that land, and the costs of developing on it, new entrants do not enter the market. Developers with a particular way of designing houses design the same houses over and over again and the result is "ugly rubbish" or "pig ugly" buildings in Nick Boles' opinion.

This then makes sky high land prices worse - because local communities oppose developments making it even tougher for buildings to get built. It's classic supply and demand. Except with a bit of aesthetics thrown in. You could call it "aesthetic economics".

His formulation goes like this: "Because we don't build beautifully, people don't let us build much. And because we don't build much, we can't afford to build beautifully."

His solution is this: if more land can be brought onto the market, then a series of things - positive in his view - can happen. More land in the system would drive down the price of land. This could encourage into the house development business smaller, more unusual designers who might design differently. More creatively.

In bringing in more providers, choice is increased for house buyers, and that could have a positive effect on the developers - that they would want to take more risks with their housing too.

If the aesthetics of house design can be improved then a vicious circle currently depressing our house building behaviour can be disrupted.

Watch Newsnight's Allegra Stratton's report on BBC iPlayer.

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