Planning Minister Nick Boles will tonight argue that England needs to build on open countryside if it’s going to solve the housing crisis, in an interview to be broadcast on Newsnight.
Nobody knows better than Londoners that Boles is right to identify the housing crisis as one of the biggest issues facing England. He is even correct to acknowledge that the only way to solve it is to build more homes. But then he flies wildly off the mark.
“If people want to have housing for their kids they have to accept we need to build more on some open land,” Boles will say.
The Planning Minister is absolutely wrong to say that we need to start building on open countryside. Developers are sitting on significant caches of land which already has planning permission, the vast majority of which is on brownfield. We should start there.
There are 400,000 homes across the country with planning permission that have either not been started or are stalled, according to a Local Government Association study which I wrote about in September. There are at least 93,000 in London alone. These are not being built because banks aren’t lending to developers, and because house builders want to limit supply to push up prices and increase their profits.
So the issue isn’t lack of land. We have it – and it’s in our existing cities.
Building new towns on open countryside is expensive and unsustainable. It necessitates creating all sorts of infrastructure from scratch. It increases car use and pollution as people continue to commute to their jobs and the social and cultural centres of the existing metro areas. And even within the new town itself, Britain’s track record in this area shows we tend to build car-dependent settlements.
Boles is wrong. Instead of looking to the countryside, which would be lost forever, we should be building up areas within cities. We need to return to the principles we identified in the seminal 1999 report Towards an Urban Renaissance, which called for densification of existing areas and better use of current stock.
The coalition government recognised this when it removed the presumption in favour of development from its final version of the National Planning Policy Framework. Let’s hope Boles doesn’t take steps to dismantle that protection for our natural heritage, and that his statements tonight remain just that – statements, and not actions.