Increasing the housing supply is a political imperative – though you would not notice it from the scant attention given to this challenge in the Conservative leadership contest. The tension, of course, is between those who want to see more homes built to allow the cost of renting and buying to ease – against the NIMBYs who resist “ugly new development” spoiling the communities they live in. Some of us feel that the solution is beautiful development. This has been the approach of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission of the late Sir Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boys Smith of Create Streets. The deal would be that there would be local design codes with popular approval – then building would be allowed. The Commission’s report says:
“People are attached to local materials and to vernacular ways of building that have inserted themselves comfortably into the landscape. Visual preference research is of the first importance, and design codes should take note of this research.”
Some of the polling which offers visual alternatives has indicated that this approach can be decisive in securing majority support for development. Others have suggested this is naive. That you can’t woo the NIMBYs – they must be confronted and defeated.
Those who say the NIMBYs can never be won over have recently gained a powerful new case study. “Just look at Faversham” they say. This is a reference to a proposal from the Duchy of Cornwall for a development of 2,500 new homes to the south east of this Kent town. It says:
“HRH The Prince of Wales and the Duchy of Cornwall have long been concerned with the quality of the natural and built environment; in taking an holistic approach to building new communities where land uses, landscape, ecology, architecture and materials combine with beautifully-designed public spaces and streets to encourage more sustainable lifestyles. A sustainable community places people first, strengthens local character and identity through urban design, connects people and places with the local landscape and food production to help engender a sense of wellbeing through meaningful connections to nature.”
“A settlement laid out around tree lined streets, orchards, allotments, ponds, meadows and wooded rides….
“Sympathetic re-use of the historic buildings within the Macknade Farm area to create a vibrant new artisan area, securing the long-term conservation of the historic buildings. Retention of the historic footpaths through the Site, along with key views of the church towers enhancing the connection to the historic centre of Faversham….
“Buildings and spaces that lift spirits using high quality design and materials inspired by local and traditional architecture…”
Yet there has been considerable opposition to the scheme. Sir David Melville, the Vice Chairman of the Faversham Society, tells me:
“The Faversham Society is opposed to all large-scale housing developments adjacent to the beautiful mediaeval market town of Faversham. This includes the proposal from the Duchy of Cornwall to build 2,500 houses on productive farmland to the South-East of the town. This along with smaller proposed developments is set to almost double the town’s population and put unsustainable strain on already overloaded services and congested roads. The addition of a possible further 5,000 cars will put impossible pressure on limited town centre car parks and the motorway junction adjacent to the site is already subject to tailbacks of up to a mile. This development is universally opposed by the people of Faversham as an existential threat to the very nature of the town.”
Swale Borough Council, which is Lib Dem-led, sounds broadly supportive. A Council spokesman tells me:
“The Duchy of Cornwall’s plans to build 2,500 homes, employment space, schools and open space in south east Faversham is included as a draft allocation in our emerging local plan.
“We’re in the process of doing a variety of evidence base work such as traffic modelling, viability, an updated employment land review and flood risk work for the local plan and expect to have a regulation 19 draft plan available for another round of public consultation later this year.”
What I conclude from all this is not that beauty is unimportant but that it is not enough. Brenley Corner, Junction 7 on the M2, is already jammed up and the locals don’t want it to be even worse. I don’t blame them at all. But what if funding was made available for road improvements to end the jam – on condition that the Duchy scheme were approved? I am not a highways engineer but those I have spoken to do not believe the challenge is insurmountable.
What if those willing to agree to new development went to the front of the queue for infrastructure projects? If there is a shortage of GPs and good school places – relative to other parts of country – an increase in the population is likely to encounter resistance. Supposing a formula was devised that would ensure new housing meant those shortages were eased rather than exacerbated. After all, as taxpayers, we would benefit from the extra revenue that development would bring.
Might not the young people of Faversham welcome the chance to become home-owners without havng to leave their community? Might not their parents and grandparents also welcome this?
One of the problems with the planning system is that the cost, delay and restrictions mean it is hard for smaller schemes to be viable. Lifting restrictions on smaller scale schemes – spread across the country – would be cumulatively significant in increasing housing supply but incite less opposition. Those already living in a town or village would not feel threatened at being overwhelmed.
The Prince of Wales has a fight on his hands in Faversham. I hope he prevails – though I suspect he will struggle to win over Sir David, or Bob Geldof. But it would help if Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, came up with an offer to ease the misery at Brenley Corner. That should not be in order to ingratiate himself to the heir to the throne. It should be merely an example of how resources will be allocated in future – to reward and incentivise development. Let the message go forth from Shapps’ Ministerial suite in Horseferry Road: If you want traffic jams in your area to be reduced, then agree to new housing.