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Nick Boles’s proposal for solving Britain’s housing shortage? Build beautiful

By Peter Hoskin
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BolesJudging only from the headlines in today’s papers, you might get the impression that Nick Boles wants to pour ugly, ugly concrete over Britain’s countryside. They’re taking their cue from the minister’s claim, spoken in a Newsnight interview which airs tonight, that:

In the UK and England at the moment we’ve got about nine per cent of land developed. All we need to do is build on another two to three per cent of land and we’ll have solved a housing problem.”

But, actually, it’s beauty — not ugliness — that Mr Boles is keen to spread. In a speech that he’s delivering to the Town and Country Planning Association’s annual conference tomorrow, he suggests that a lot of the resistance to new housing developments comes about because the developments are often “pig ugly”. This creates a “vicious cycle”, which he describes thus:

We are trapped in a vicious circle.

People look at the new housing estates that have been bolted on to their towns and villages in recent decades and observe that few of them are beautiful.

Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, many of them are pig-ugly.

Since new housing estates are all too often soulless and formulaic, and those who will inhabit them will add to the pressure on local roads, primary school places and doctor’s appointments, existing residents oppose any proposal to build new houses on green field sites, even when the land is of low environmental quality.

Local authorities respond to the wishes of local voters by putting too few sites into their local plans.  And this drives the cost of development land up to stratospheric levels (roughly £3 million an acre in the South East and East of England by 2010.)

Developers respond by stuffing as many units as they can onto any site and, in an attempt to make the properties affordable, skimp on room size, architectural features, vernacular materials, communal spaces and landscape design.

In a nutshell, 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.”

Elsewhere in the speech, Mr Boles does indirectly acknowledge that folk don’t share the same conceptions about beauty — but he also gives some examples of those towns he finds beautiful. One is Stamford, “a town of discrete buildings”. Another is Letchworth Garden City, whose architects “allowed room for the organic intermingling of nature and architecture”. But perhaps the most noteworthy one is the Wintles — which is only around a decade old — not least because Mr Boles calls it “a model for our future”.

So what’s the government to do about all this? Mr Boles cites various existing policies, including “neighbourhood planning,” by which local communities have more say over what and where development takes place. What’s intriguing, though, is his line that “I will be talking more about our ambitions for neighbourhood plans after the Autumn Statement.” Watch this as-yet-undeveloped space, I guess.


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