Could better-looking homes solve housing shortage?

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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.

Watch the full Newsnight debate on housebuilding

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.

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The result is "ugly rubbish" or "pig ugly" buildings in Nick Boles' opinion”

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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.

Allegra Stratton Article written by Allegra Stratton Allegra Stratton Political editor, Newsnight

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  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Nick Boles said, in response to being challenged over the sustainability of building on farmland, "the most high quality farmland wouldn't be built on".

    This is untrue.

    Best quality farmland is ALREADY being built on, with planning permission granted even before the removal of planning constraints under the NPPF.

    The NPPF and "inducements" like the New Homes Bonus can only make things worse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Hmm - it is interesting how my earlier posts openly and factually presenting the impact of immigration on our growing population and housing demand have received negative ratings from someone.

    Those are the unadulterated facts, like them or not.

    Ignoring the facts and giving anyone who presents them negative ratings is not entirely constructive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Alexicon - a business that extracts its profit from a market but actually does nothing constructive to generate that profit is making its money by limiting supply and inflating prices.

    So Buy To Let is not "fine", either in principle or practice.

    Buy-To-Let takes market housing and converts it purely to make money. BUILD-To-Let is entirely different, because this increases housing supply.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    100.Eddy from Waring
    rent-for-profit is business use.
    Planners could recognise that it is not in the interests of a locality to have too much of this, and refuse applications.

    Too late - you couldn't make it retrospective. Also the planners would have to accept that housing is in the interest of a locality and so it would be permitted.
    Buy to let is fine- its the price that isn't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    There is a shortage of affordable housing, or more precisely, not enough existing housing is affordable for ordinary working people.

    Private rented housing is less affordable than social housing.

    So why is the government's housing policy so heavily biased towards boosting private rented housing rather than social rented housing?

    There is a whole chapter on it in the policy document.,


Comments 5 of 108



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