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Westlake Legal Group > James Brokenshire MP

Nicholas Boys Smith: New homes and places can and should be beautiful

Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and a Fellow in Urban Design at the University of Buckingham.

Do you remember the old Bob Monkhouse joke? “When I told people, I wanted to be a comedian, everyone laughed – they’re not laughing now.” I feel a bit like that this morning.

Six years ago I chucked in my job to set up the social enterprise Create Streets, to argue on the ground, in councils and in parliament that new homes and places should be more popular, more beautiful and developed in line with the strong evidence of the types of places which people like and where they want to live. Real places with real centres and “gentle density” of terraced homes and mansion blocks benefiting both from the advantages of lower density (more space, cleaner air, less stress) but also from the advantages of greater density (more walking, knowing more of your neighbours, more sustainable energy usage). People are healthier and happier in such places and, if they can afford it, will normally pay more to live there.

But everyone, or nearly everyone, laughed. Those on the right, I was told, only cared about feathering the nests of the big developer friends or in a ‘bonfire of the regulations.’ Those on the left, I was informed, only cared about maximising the number of social homes. Everything else was a middle-class distraction.

Well maybe most people do care about the quality of new places after all. Slowly, calmly, rationally and I hope politely we have made the case for creating streets of beauty and popularity not lumpen, over-crammed tower-blocks or sprawling drive-to cul-de-sacs. We have made the case by talking to officials, councillors, MPs and developers. We have made the case by working for neighbourhood groups, councils (of all political colours) and landowners. And we have made the case by asking the big questions that somehow get missed out of too much of the political debate about planning and new homes. Why do people oppose new housing? (Design is not the only issue, but it is one of the big ones. Expectations of new developments are just so low). What are the similarities, and what are the differences, between the English planning system and those in other countries? And what are the discoverable relationships between urban design with happiness, mental health, physical health and crucial attributes of the good life such as knowing your neighbours, breathing clean air or not feeling stressed and overwhelmed as you go about your daily business?

There is a revolution of available information now accessible to urban researchers and we have made use of it gleefully, modelling, for example, every property sale in six British cities in 2016 or exploring human reactions to 19,000 streets and squares. We have probed important issues – such as the “design disconnect” whereby most professional planners and architects have provably different tastes to the wider public. And we have highlighted the fact that too many of the volume housebuilders barely use architects or urban designers at all. Something is going very badly wrong in how we create new places, or rather how we don’t. As one very experienced engineer put it to me yesterday having reviewed a live estate regeneration plan in South London, “I saw this in the 1970s – we’re building the slums of the future again.” Small flats. Long corridors. Over-density. Ugly sheer buildings. Unclear public and private space. We’ve been here before and it did not end well.

It is time for a change. And, step by step, we are making progress. We work with all parties. Liberal Democrat councils have cited our work in their manifestos and asked us to improve their development processes. Labour councils have asked us to review their plans and their engagement with residents. Some councils and housing associations have started, routinely, to seek our guidance on good and popular design or in setting their development framework for land they own. Above all, time after time, almost daily, put upon and harassed neighbourhoods and community groups have approached us. Rich or poor, young or old, north or south, the story is always a variant of the same: someone we do not know from a company we have not heard of is trying to do something horrid to our neighbourhood. We think something better is possible. Can you help? Funds are normally very tight but wherever we possibly can, we do.

Other think tanks and specialist housing charities (from Policy Exchange to Shelter) have picked up elements of our argument and evidence. And earlier this year, in a bold and admirable move, the then Secretary of State for Housing, James Brokenshire in conjunction with the excellent former Housing Minister, Kit Malthouse, formed the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission to investigate how new places could be more beautiful and more popular to ease the undoubted pressures on supply. I co-chair this alongside Sir Roger Scruton who has risked ridicule all his life by daring to think and write about beauty. The Commission’s creation was met with a tsunami of criticism from some professionals. However, rather to their own surprise, our interim report, published in July, was met with wide-spread professional support. The humane case for popular place-making is just too strong for all but the mono-minded to ignore.

Yesterday, in a highly welcome move the Secretary of State for Housing, Robert Jenrick, has announced the Government’s new design guide crammed full of good sense and good guidance on the types of places that people like and in which they flourish. It’s great to see the Commission’s work already being taken forward. For the first time, ever I think, and in the teeth of the perverse, self-defeating and provably false architectural fetish that “what buildings look like doesn’t matter” it has dared to make the case for buildings that actually look, well, nice. (As our book and major statistical study, Of Streets and Squares, shows you can predict what people will like very readily indeed: variety in a pattern, complexity and composure in the façade, a sense of place and some level of symmetry and colour are normally winners with the public. Sheer glass, spreadsheet regularity, over-sized buildings, or chaotic facades are normally losers).

This announcement is particularly timely because if we are going to ease the supply of new homes by making it easier for SMEs, self-builders, market entrants, modular innovators, councils and small landowners to build more homes and affordable homes then we need to remove the regulatory barriers to entry which have led to the most concentrated home-building market in the Western world. This in turn means changing the nature of “planning risk” and moving the democracy forward from the development control process to the Local Plan. What and where you can build, and what and where you cannot, should be more certain so that it is easier for a wider range of providers to create homes. But they should only be freer to do so within a clear carapace of locally acceptable designs and betterment taxes – certainly if they want an easy ride through planning. The best regulatory systems are predictable and consistent. Ours is the opposite of this. Despite the decency and deep honesty of planning officials, the system is just too discretionary at present and is thus most open to those with the deep pockets who can risk millions on working up hundreds of pages of planning applications. As one developer put it to me, “The worst thing that can happen during a planning application is that a development control officer changes.” This is not how it should be.

This is why the most exciting part of the design guide is the bit that has not yet been published. It talks rather coyly of a section which will set a code for local councils and neighbourhoods to adapt to their needs. This is the crucial bit and would get away from subjective and pointless arguments over ‘good design’ (which just feather lawyers’ pockets) and instead set the types of segment, street ratio, façade pattern and material that are acceptable ‘around here.’ This would be a quiet revolution. It would make our approach to planning more similar to that used in, for example, Holland or an increasing number of cities in the US. In such places a clearly visual and numerical framework (sometimes called a form-based code) is set for certain places, defined locally. Within that framework it is very easy to build and the SME, self-build and custom-build markets flourish.

Beyond that framework, it is very hard indeed. This is not a new idea. Many of our Georgian or Victorian streets (certainly those in London) were created under statue that set very clearly what you could build but were very liberal about your right to build it. Indeed, the development patterns of towns and cities have always and always will be regulated. It is part of the irreducible core of what government does. The externalities are just too great for it to be otherwise. (Do you want a tannery next to you? Or a thatched roof come to that?)

So this is very welcome news and the government is to be warmly congratulated in facing down the siren voices. And it is great news for Create Streets – though I don’t think we’ll be out of a job any times soon. So much of what is currently being built is just so inhumane in its conception and design.

What should the government do next? It should more firmly bed popular design into the National Planning Policy Framework. It should dare to turn down a few developments because they are just too hideous. And it should follow through with the next stage of their design guide so that what you can build is more firmly and visually defined locally in a process agreed with local citizens. Create homes and places, streets and squares of beauty and walkability. Sometimes the answer, or part of the answer, has been staring us in the face all along.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Gary Porter: Reflections on four years as the voice of local government

Lord Porter is the Leader of South Holland District Council and a former Chairman of the Local Government Association.

It has been nearly three months since I stood down as the Chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA), and in that short period, British politics has experienced further dramatic change: Boris Johnson was elected as Leader of our Party and appointed Prime Minister, the Cabinet was radically reshuffled, and the brief return of Parliament after the summer recess produced more drama in one week than a full session used to in quieter times.

Although spread over four years, my time as LGA Chairman also coincided with a period of profound change: I took up the post in July 2015 just after David Cameron had secured the Party’s first electoral majority in 23 years, 2016 was the year of the Brexit vote, and in 2017, we had yet another general election, the third in seven years. The following two years saw the implications of the Brexit vote crowding out almost everything else and eventually led to Theresa May stepping down as our Party Leader and Prime Minister.

As LGA Chairman, I dealt with three Secretaries of State at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG): Greg Clark, Sajid Javid, and James Brokenshire. They are quite different characters, but all shared a willingness to listen to local government and respond to our concerns, for which I will always be grateful.

Under Greg, we saw significant progress on devolution in certain parts of the country, as well as the first serious moves towards the localisation of business rates. After he moved to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2016 I continued to work closely with him, particularly regarding the Industrial Strategy.

Sajid’s time at MHCLG coincided with increasing concern about the crisis in adult social care. Having listened to our lobbying on this, he worked across Whitehall to secure an extra £2 billion in funding for social care in the 2017 Budget.

Under Sajid’s leadership, we also saw a renewed focus on getting more homes built. For example, he secured £5 billion for the new Housing Infrastructure Fund, which is designed to unlock 200,000 new homes in areas of high demand. With the Government committed to building 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s, this funding is essential in ensuring that development is sustainable.

Finally, at last year’s Party Conference, with James Brokenshire as our Secretary of State, came the announcement that I had lobbied for my whole political career: the abolition of the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) borrowing cap. This simple measure, which will allow councils to borrow to build new social housing, means that local government is at last able to fully play its part in tackling the national housing shortage.

James also oversaw the creation of the Brexit Local Government Delivery Board, bring together senior LGA councillors and Ministers from across Whitehall. As we approach the 31st of October, the Board is becoming increasingly influential within Whitehall.

When I stood down as LGA Chairman, I was delighted to be succeeded by another Conservative, Cllr James Jamieson, the Leader of Central Bedfordshire and the Leader of the Conservative Group at the LGA. James was replaced as Leader by Izzi Secombe. Whilst most of us were able to take a break over the Summer, James and Izzi were busy in Westminster holding meetings with a range of new Ministers, including our new MHCLG Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, to lobby for the LGA’s key asks ahead of the recent Spending Round.

Their efforts were rewarded with the announcement in the Spending Round of £3.5 billion in funding for local services, the largest year on year real-terms increase in spending power in over a decade. This included £1.5 billion for adult social care and £700 million for children and young people with special educational needs, two key cost pressure areas.

So the main lesson that I took from my four years as LGA Chairman is a very simple one: when Conservatives in local and central government work together, we improve lives and achieve the best results for our communities. With James and Izzi, the LGA is in safe hands, and I wish them all the best for what promises to be another eventful and dramatic political year.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Johnson’s shuffle. If one asks for decisiveness – for an end to drift – don’t complain when it’s delivered.

ConservativeHome offered Boris Johnson advice on his coming reshuffle over a month ago.  Whatever you do, we said, shuffle with purpose.  Every single member of your new Cabinet must be signed up to leaving the EU on October 31 – without a deal if necessary.  Do or die.  All together now.  Band of brothers (and sisters).  No more Theresa May-era mass resignations over Brexit policy, totting up in the end to over 50, even without taking into account the very last ones.

A question this morning is whether or not the new Prime Minister has followed that train of thought to the point where it crashes into the buffers – and drives uncontrollably through them, leaving a trail of wreckage and corpses in its wake.  For he not only fired those Cabinet members who couldn’t support the policy (those that were left, anyway), but went on to sack many of those who surely could have done, or would at least have made their peace with it.

Jeremy Hunt, Liam Fox, Penny Mordaunt, Damian Hinds, David Mundell, James Brokenshire, Karen Bradley, Jeremy Wright – all of these would presumably have rallied round the new leader.  Two of them, Fox and Mordaunt, were 2016 Brexiteers.  The latter was prominent within Vote Leave.  One of them, Brokenshire, was a Johnson voter in the leadership election.  Yet the new Prime Minister deliberately chose to bundle them up in no fewer than nine full Cabinet sackings.  Greg Clark hung on until the end, while Chris Grayling went of his own volition. That brings the total to ten.

This was the bloodiest Cabinet Walpurgisnacht in modern history – making Macmillan’s night of the long knives look like a day trip to Balamory (although technically the changes marked the start of a new Government, not a shuffle within the old one).  Add the ten to the departure of Theresa May, Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Rory Stewart and David Lidington, and one reaches 15.  And that’s before getting into the dismissal of MPs entitled to attend, such as Mel Stride and Clare Perry.  That’s ten Conservative MPs alienated and in some cases added, perhaps, to the core of perhaps 25 ultra-rebellious Tory Soft Brexiteers and Remainers.  And the Government’s majority soon looks to dwindle to one.

There are many ways of assessing the replacements for the departed 15 or so.  For a start, there is ethnicity.  To Sajid Javid is added Rishi Sunak, now to be Chief Secretary to the Treasury; Alok Sharma at International Development plus, above all, Priti Patel at the Home Office (and of those entitled to attend there is James Cleverly, the new Party Chairman, plus Kwasi Kwarteng).  Then there are women: to Patel, we can add Liz Truss at Trade, Andrea Leadsom at Business, Theresa Villiers at Environment, Nicky Morgan at Culture, Amber Rudd at Work and Pensions.  This is Johnson’s briefed-in-advance “Cabinet for modern Britain”.  May had only three female members of her full Cabinet: Rudd, Mordaunt, Bradley and herself.  Javid was the only ethnic minority member.

As for the changes themselves, they seem to us to be a mixed bag.  Sunak, Cleverly, Leadsom, Robert Buckland at Justice, Ben Wallace at Defence: these are good appointments.  Julian Smith will know the Northern Ireland scene well from his work as Chief Whip.  Alister Jack is presumably in because Johnson wants a Leaver at the Scottish Office.  Nicky Morgan at Culture can take as her motto the saying of Leo X: “God has given us the papacy – let us enjoy it”.  Robert Jenrick, with Sunak one of three authors of a pro-Johnson leadership endorsement, has a big promotion to housing.  Their co-signatory, Oliver Dowden, will be a Cabinet Office Minister “entitled to attend”.

He will be among a swelling group of people: no fewer than ten, including Jacob Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House.  The new Prime Minister is doing nothing to make the Cabinet more compact.  The site would have preferred to see Theresa Villiers back at Northern Ireland rather than pitched in to Michael Gove’s shoes at Environment.  The big experiment will be exposing Gavin Williamson to the electorally-sensitive world of teachers and parents.

But if you want to locate the key to this reshuffle, it isn’t ethnicity, or gender, or finding horses for courses.  Rather, it is support for Johnson himself – and for Brexit. Rudd is the only declared Hunt voter to survive.  Morgan plumped for Gove.  Everyone else voted either for Johnson, right from the start of this contest, or at least after elimination themselves (if we know what they did at all).  Furthermore, 15 out of the 32 people eligible to gather round the Cabinet table voted Leave in 2016, compared to seven out of 29 in May’s last Cabinet.

Dom Raab at the Foreign Office – First Secretary of State, to boot – plus Patel, and Michael Gove at the Cabinet Office, working hand in glove with Dominic Cummings, while Steve Barclay hangs on at DexEU.  These are all general election-ready, Vote Leave veterans.  One has the spooky sensation, looking at this Cabinet and leadership, that the year is somehow 2016 – and that we now have the Government that we should have had then, ready at last to counter the charge that Vote Leave scurried away from Brexit, rather than manning up to deliver it.

Yes, the slaugher is spectacular.  And yes, the demotion of Hunt was unwise – though perhaps not as much so as his own refusal to take responsibility in government for our armed forces.  But look at it all another way.  Johnson stood accused of being a soft touch – indecisive; yielding; vacant.  So one can scarcely complain when he wields – not least before those who look on from abroad – the power that the premiership still has.  Brexiteers are accused of not taking responsibility.  After this shuffle, they can’t be: Johnson and Patel and Raab and company are unmistakably, unmissably in charge.

Remainers and Leavers alike can converge on a shared point.  Vote Leave helped to create Brexit.  Let their leaders now own it.  If one asks for decisiveness – for an end to drift – one can scarcely complain when it’s delivered.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Mordaunt leads the pack in our latest Cabinet League Table

Westlake Legal Group Cabinet-League-Table-May-19-1024x965 Mordaunt leads the pack in our latest Cabinet League Table ToryDiary Theresa May MP The Cabinet Steve Barclay MP Sajid Javid MP Ruth Davidson MSP Rory Stewart MP Philip Hammond MP Penny Mordaunt MP Paul Davies AM Natalie Evans (Baroness) Michael Gove MP Mel Stride MP Matthew Hancock MP Liz Truss MP Liam Fox MP Karen Bradley MP Julian Smith MP Jeremy Wright MP Jeremy Hunt MP James Brokenshire MP Highlights Greg Clark MP Geoffrey Cox MP David Mundell MP David Lidington MP David Gauke MP Damian Hinds MP ConservativeHome Members' Panel Chris Skidmore MP Chris Grayling MP Caroline Nokes MP Brandon Lewis MP Amber Rudd MP Alun Cairns MP

*Note: Theresa May scored -68.7, and Chris Grayling -72.4.

This month’s Cabinet League Table is very much a snapshot of the end of a regime. With the race to succeed Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party about to begin, there is very likely to be a substantial reshuffle in the near future.

A glance at the above chart suggests why one is needed: only eleven Cabinet ministers record positive scores from our panel, and even the top-rated minister has barely hit +50. Here are some takeaways:

  • Mordaunt tops the poll. Our last two surveys both had her in fourth, so the Defence Secretary’s leap to the top of the podium will do nothing, so soon after she wrote for us about the leadership, to cool speculation that she might be about to enter the competition herself.
  • Truss holds on to second place. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has endorsed Boris Johnson, so no leadership speculation here, but her energetic championing of small-state, pro-freedom Conservatism is clearly striking a chord with the grassroots.
  • Davidson is back. Ruth Davidson’s return to the front has been noted, and rewarded with a 16-point increase in her positive rating. Were she in the Cabinet, she would have taken the silver medal position from Truss.
  • In fact, all three podium slots are held by women. Mordaunt, Truss, and Davidson are the three most popular Conservative politicians with our panellists. At present not one is running for the leadership, but it nonetheless challenges lazy stereotypes about the Tory grassroots and should give those MPs in the leadership race food for thought.
  • Although May’s score remains Stygian. Although she is at least scoring better than Chris Grayling this month, this score is a sour note on which to depart Downing Street and will cast a shadow over those candidates trying to carry forward aspects of her legacy.
  • Gove, Hunt, and Javid have respectable scores… Of the leadership candidates running from the Cabinet, these three are clustered together near the top of the table. Ratings in the low-to-mid 20s would not ordinarily look like endorsements, but alas these are not ordinary times.
  • …whilst Hancock and Stewart struggle. The Health Secretary is at least in the black, with a score of 5.6. The International Development Secretary however is on -18, scarcely an auspicious jumping-off point for any leadership bid.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Boys Smith takes over from Scruton chairing the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission

Congratulations to Nicholas Boys Smith, the founder of Create Streets, who has been appointed the “acting Chair” of the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. This is the post that was vacant after Sir Roger Scruton was dismissed by James Brokenshire, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary. As has been widely reported Sir Roger was interviewed in the New Statesman. Hos views on various matters were misrepresented – but Brokenshire ousted him before this became clear.

Interviewed by Iain Dale on LBC yesterday, Brokenshire said:

‘I have a huge amount of respect and acknowledgement for Sir Roger’s focus on aesthetics, that he is a leader in his field.

“In hindsight I look back on the handling of this and, yes, we could have done things differently. That is something I do acknowledge. It is difficult and I’m very saddened by the whole situation as to how this has occurred.

‘I very firmly thank and recognise all of the work that Sir Roger has done on this.’

That falls short of an apology and the delay before expressing any contrition is also unfortunate.

The good news is that Boys Smith is an excellent choice as successor. He has contributed several pieces to this site outlining his thinking on architecture.

In some ways Boys Smith is better suited than Sir Roger as what is needed is not persuasive arguments for a beautiful built environment. Most of us are already convinced. Those of us who are not convinced tend to the ones with the power – the architects and the planners – who are unlikely to be converted by the essays and speeches of Sir Roger, however elegantly phrased. Where Boys Smith should do well is coming up with a list of viable demands to put to the Government to solve the problem. That is to see homes built and for that building to be popular by ensuring that they are attractive.

It is likely that we will have a new Prime Minister in a few months but I suspect the work will continue. Certainly the meeting the housing challenge will be a key test for leadership rivals. Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, looks to Tokyo.  She wants more “upward” development. But Boys Smith points out that there is a difference between high density and high rise – Tokyo is lower density than London. Truss is quite right to wish to allow new homes on the Green Belt – but they way to achieve that is with the proviso is that they are traditional and use local materials – not concrete tower blocks.

Anyway however angry Conservatives, and other fair-minded people, might feel about the treatment of Sir Roger, it is welcome that his mission continues.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Steve Norris: Commonhold? Here’s a better idea – and one that doesn’t force management on occupiers

Steve Norris is a former Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party and Conservative candidate for the London mayoralty.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee recently published its conclusions on the issue of leasehold reform. They rightly recommended that the Government stop the really nasty practice by some home builders of charging ground rents which appear innocuous to inexperienced buyers, but which double over ten or 15 years, this causing real distress to their owners. The department very promptly accepted that recommendation, and as far as houses are concerned the practice will be stopped.

But the committee went further. They questioned the whole issue of leasehold ownership – particularly of flats which they described as, too often, leading to tenants being exploited through ground rents and service charges which have little to do with the quality of the building and a great deal to do with profit for the unscrupulous landlord. They were clearly right to highlight the way that tenants can be exploited under the law as it stands but their remedy – a transition from leases to commonhold – was quite simply wrong.

Some time ago no less august a body than the Law Commission also recommended commonhold as the answer to tenant concerns. Both bodies see this as a way to cut out the landlord – which, to be fair, commonhold does. In simple terms, it means that the occupiers of a building in multiple occupancy own the building collectively. They buy a share of the building, rather than a lease. The committee describes this as “free from ground rents, lease extensions, and with greater control for residents over service charges and major works.”

It goes on to say they are “unconvinced that professional freeholders provide a significantly higher level of service than that which could be provided by leaseholders themselves.” The committee may be right that, in theory, multiple occupiers can manage a building as well as a professionally qualified person. But they are seriously missing the point.

In reality, multiple occupiers of a single building, whether they are leaseholders or commonholders, face the same challenges. Few, if any of them, will live in the property for the whole of its life. They will have differing views on how the building should be maintained. The elderly couple who contemplate no more than another ten years in the property might not be happy to contribute to a sinking fund for roof repairs that they will never see the benefit of. The young couple next door might see that issue very differently.

By one means or another, commonholders will still need to decide among themselves how the building should be kept in decent repair, which their number is going to take responsibility for procuring the work – and, even more to the point, collecting the necessary contributions from their neighbours. Even assuming that one of them was a) professionally qualified and b) willing to take on the responsibility, those other all too obvious hurdles will still need to be jumped.

What happens in practice is that the commonholders invariably do go to a professionally-qualified managing agent to take on all these responsibilities – and thus are to all intents and purposes in exactly the same position as leaseholders. The managing agent has no interest in how the tenants afford their bills. The tenants have little exposure to how the agent determines who gets the work and at what price. In the worst cases, this itself is a practice prone to abuse.

The fact is that the answer is neither leasehold or commonhold (which is, incidentally, available now but seldom used because, one can only assume, ordinary occupiers see the risks that elude the great minds of the Law Commission and the Select Committee). Instead, it is quite simple – namely, to ensure that occupiers get appropriate, decent service from suitably qualified professionals who will be in a contractual relationship that will ensure they deliver best value for money.

That means regulation – which despite the leading voluntary industry body, the Association of Residential managing Agents (ARMA) calling for it, still hasn’t happened. But last month a group of freeholders, managing agents and developers signed a public pledge to bring about positive change in the residential leasehold sector.

Backed by James Brokenshire, this commitment to raise industry standards feels like a watershed moment to reform the current of leasehold ownership in a practical and sensible way that will really address the issues that all occupiers of multiple apartment buildings face. As part of the pledge, the Government made a firm commitment to “work with other freeholders and stakeholders to develop a comprehensive Code of Practice which establishes the responsibilities of freeholders and enshrines the highest standards for the management and maintenance of properties”.

This is much more like it. A mandatory Code of Practice is in the pipeline. It should establish clear, high-level minimum standards, and should outline how all the relevant stakeholders should conduct business and catches all the players in the market. Together, the pledge and the Code of Practice, if given legal backing, should ensure that freeholders act as long-term responsible stewards of properties, holding managing agents to account. Being mandatory, it catches the cowboys – which is exactly what is needed. Ironically, this is a point acknowledged in the HCLG Select Committee’s report.

Like most gut Conservatives, I instinctively dislike regulation. But as a pragmatic one, I also accept that there a huge numbers of instances in which it is quite simply the best answer to many of society’s challenges. As a minister in the Major government, I trawled through quantities of regulation looking at what we could dispense with and what we needed to keep. The issues were almost all about public safety and consumer protection and, in a very large majority of cases, I came to the reluctant conclusion that regulation was the necessary and inevitable response.

Ultimately, effective regulation, such as is envisaged here, is the best way of ensuring that tenants are given the right degree of protection, and that owners of buildings are able to ensure their buildings remain in good condition throughout their life. Most of us simply don’t want to be heavily involved in the running of complicated apartment buildings, and neither are we qualified to do so. Forcing communal management on occupiers with all its flaws and potential for conflict cannot be the answer. Time surely for the Law Commission and the select committee to think again.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Scruton may have been ousted, but Tory councillors can still champion the cause of beauty

The decision of James Brokenshire, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, to peremptorily dismiss Sir Roger Scruton as chairman of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission was hugely ill-judged. We already know that Sir Roger’s comments in an interview with the New Statesman were deliberately and maliciously misrepresented. The least Brokenshire could do is to ask for a tape or full transcript of the interview to discover what Sir Roger actually said. Yet Brokenshire has not even done that. A really shabby episode – which has done far more to damage the reputation of the New Statesman and Brokenshire than of Sir Roger.

Unless and until an apology, and an offer of reinstatement, to Sir Roger is issued, the injustice of what has happened can not be ignored.

However, that is not to say that the cause the Commission was set up to champion should be abandoned. On the contrary we should resolve to pursue his mission. The Commission was never going to able to win the battle on its own. Its principles need to be applied by those in positions of power when decisions on planning and development are made. This is not just a challenge for Ministers, but for local councillors, including Conservative councillors, who too often have presided over the areas they represent being spoilt by approving ugly new buildings.

Usually, Tory councillors, like the rest of us, will prefer beautiful traditional design to the offensive modernist alternative. But when a planning officer or architect mutters the word “pastiche” the forces of beauty beat a retreat. I have known those who will be bold at dinner parties denouncing “hideous” proposed building, but then by cowed by “experts” in the Council offices the next day when it comes to a decision on what to do about it. Thus the guilty hypocrisy continues of those who find attractive homes for themselves, while choosing to provide concrete blocks for other people to live in.

If there was ever an excuse for this there certainly isn’t now. A social enterprise called Create Streets provides abundant material to refute the claims of the architectural establishment. Their most recent paper, Of Streets and Squares, is sponsored by Cadogan Estates. It is concerns with public spaces:

“What turns space that is public into a public space? Why are some streets and squares valued, yet others shunned? Why do people tend to prefer some places rather than others? How does this affect their behaviour? This study summarises existing research into why people like some squares and streets and avoid others.”

After a review of 18,966 streets and squares in six British cities – London, Manchester, Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Canterbury and Cambridge  – it came up with some useful guidance. It proposed the following recommendations to developers:

  • Gentle density is your friend – but ‘fine grain’ it! The best and most beautiful streets and squares are typically in areas of ‘gentle density’, half way between the extremes of tower block and extended suburbia They are rarely more than three to seven storeys high, with a land-use coverage between 45 and 65 per cent and dwelling density of between 50 and 150 homes per hectare. Squares between 80 and 100 metres wide and blocks between 50 and 150 metres long (depending on centrality) are normally best.
  • When it comes to greenery, little and often is normally best. People like being in green places. Urban greenery is associated with increased physical and mental wellbeing, as long as it is used. You can maximise this by ‘spreading it around’, with frequent green spaces inter-weaved into streets and squares. Street trees are normally a no-brainer. However, greenery on its own does not normally ‘do it’, if most other things are wrong.
  • Benches and statues should be structured, not randomised. Where seating is matters. Horizontal infrastructure, with a bit of structure, helps humans play the right roles: benches that face a fountain; an arcade that faces a square, with a statue or a podium in it. Brownian motion should not apply to the horizontal infrastructure. You cannot put ‘bench wash’ on an ugly and windy chasm or art wash on a traffic island. Or, you can, but most people will still avoid them. The best squares typically have an average of sitting area of between six and 10 per cent of the total open space.
  • Beauty really really matters. The most popular places with a predictable 70-90 per cent of the population have a strong sense of place and ‘could not be anywhere.’ They have ‘active facades’ that ‘live’ and have variety in a pattern. They have streets that bend and flex with the contours of the landscape. They are not designed by committee. More finely-grained developments also tend to be more long-lasting and resilient, better able to adapt to changing needs. Their organised complexity attracts, interests and reassures at different scales. A square or street, with many plots, can see its buildings upgraded, enlarged, improved, even replaced, but still somehow remain the same, or at any rate a similar, place. Most beautiful cities are intense, coherent and rich in architectural detail. Health correlates more with ‘scenic-ness’ than greenery.
  • Mix it up! Places with a textured mix of different land uses, and active façades, are nearly always more successful. They attract more people and generate more diverse and engaging environments. They can work for longer portions of the day, by mixing people at work, people at lunch, people at home and people at play. Mixed land use is also more walkable and is associated with lower car use, as it is possible to combine trips more easily. In King County, Washington, residents in mixed-use neighbourhoods don’t use their car 12 per cent of the time, compared to 4 per cent of trips in single-use areas.
  • Edges attract and protect. The edges of streets and squares attract us. This is partly-lived experience. (It is where we are used to pavements going, even when a street is pedestrianised). But it is also sensory. There is more to look at (shop fronts, cafés) and (in a square) edges allow us to step back and either watch the world go past, or sample the space.
  • People like to feel enclosed… up to a point. Most people like to spend time in places that are enclosed and human scale, without feeling too claustrophobic. There is a necessary moment for views that open up as you round a corner, for grand vistas, for open parks, but many of the most popular streets surrounding and linking such views and vistas are surprisingly human-scale. Few of the most popular streets are wider than 30 metres or narrower than 11 metres. Popular wider streets (Paseo de Gracia or Champs-Elysees) normally ‘break up’ their width with avenues of trees.
  • It’s not what you spend, it’s where and how you spend it. Investing money in improving carriageways, pavements and horizontal infrastructure often works. Our Place Beauty Analysis found that investment in public realm was associated with increasing ‘scenic-ness.’ Normally, you should invest in places where the ‘intrinsic’ quality of urban form and design are good, but poor maintenance, or poor quality public realm, is needlessly letting them down. Also find tactical ways of improving streets, without big budget expenditure, and support community-led initiatives wherever possible.
  • Walkability works but does not quite mean maximising space to walk. Compact, walkable and ‘bikeable’ environments are good for you. People walk in them more and are healthier and happier. This in turn drives higher values for investors. A complex array of elements encourages or discourages people walking or cycling rather than jumping in the car. More walking is encouraged by beautiful engaging façades, regularly spaced trees, and frequent small parks, the presence of resting places, arcades or colonnades at the edge of busy squares, outside cafes, sufficiently wide pavements and cycling lanes. Huge pavements with everything else wrong won’t necessarily be very attractive.
  • Do people say they like it? And do they mean it? Design is not rocket science. We all spend time in towns, in streets and squares. People are very good at judging what they like and where they want to be. And it is increasingly easy to use technology to map where people do spend time, or to understand this not by asking simplistic questions, but by performing proper visual preference surveys. Doing this can correct for the ‘design disconnect’ (the measurable difference between the design preferences of design professionals and everyone else) and help crowdsource making better places, which people really like.

The fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral reminded us of the historian Kenneth Clark turning to it and saying:

“What is civilisation? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms, yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it. And I’m looking at it now.”

Surely we should have the self-confidence to recognise beauty when we see it in the designs proposed for new buildings. We could all think of points to add or subtract from the Create Streets list. What is needed is the determination to pursue the ideals that encompass that approach.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Potemkin legislation

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-04-17-at-07.25.35 Potemkin legislation Work Women and equality Women wages Treasury ToryDiary Stella Creasy MP sport Sam Coates (The Times) Sajid Javid MP rent Public Sector Northern Ireland NHS Local government and local elections Local Elections (general) Liz Truss MP Julian Assange jobs James Brokenshire MP immigration housing Home and family Highlights healthcare Health football Family and relationships exports employment Elizabeth Truss MP Economy DUP divorce disability Diane Abbott MP David Gauke MP David Blanchflower Conservatives Abortion

The ten most recent subjects covered by the Conservative Party’s Twitter feed are as follows: record employment, the provision of free sanitary products in primary schools, Conservative councils recycling more than Labour ones, more statistics about work and wages, record women’s employment, workers’ rights, an exports increase, more disabled people in employment, an end to no fault evictions, Conservative councils fixing more potholes than Labour ones, banning upskirting, funding more toilets at motorway service areas to help people living with complex disabilities, Sajid Javid criticising Diane Abbott over Julian Assange, kicking out racism in football, and a new law to protect service animals.

One might pick out three main themes, local election campaigning aside.

The first is the vibrancy of Britain’s jobs market and the country’s robust recent record on employment.  The aftermath of the Crash and the Coalition’s slowing of public spending growth, a.k.aa “austerity”, didn’t bring the five million unemployed that David Blanchflower believed possible.  The Government has to keep shouting about our employment rates because people have got used to them.  A generation is growing up that cannot remember the mass unemployment of the 1980s.

Then there are a battery of announcements aimed disproportionately at younger women voters, who were more likely to switch to Labour at the last election.  Those of a certain disposition will argue that some of these are trivial, and that women and men both want government to get on with addressing big issues: Brexit, health, the economy, immigration, education and so on.  But part of the point of banning upskirting, say, or providing more free sanitary products is gaining “permission to be heard”, in order to make some voters, in this case younger female ones, more receptive to what Conservatives are doing more broadly and widely.

Which takes us, third, to law-making – not admitttedly the only means, or even necessarily the main one, by which government can act, but indispensable none the less.  Under which category we find a new law to protect service animals and the proposed end to no fault evictions, about which James Brokenshire wrote on this site recently.  The two may seem to have nothing in common but, on closer inspection, tell part of the same story.

Namely that, as Sam Coates keeps pointing out, the Government can’t get any plan which is remotely contentious through the Commons.  Only the most uncontested ideas, such as providing police and other service dogs with more protections, can make it through the House. And this new service animals measure isn’t even Government leglislation.  It came about through a Private Members Bill tabled by Oliver Heald and then backed by Ministers.

Meanwhile, the proposal to end no fault evictions isn’t contained in a Bill at all.  The headline on gov.uk about the plan refers to an “end to unfair evictions” and “the biggest change to the private rental sector for a generation”.  But the text of the announcement refers to “plans to consult on new legislation” and refers to an earlier consultation, on Overcoming the barriers to longer tenancies in the private rented sector, to which it has now published a response.

As with housing, so with divorce.  On ConservativeHome today, Frank Young makes the point, in his article on the Government’s plans to ensure that no fault divorce can take place more frequently, that “it remains to be seen if the Justice Department’s enthusiasm for new legislation will be matched by government business managers and the ability of the current government to get any legislation through”.  For David Gauke has unfurled not a new Bill, but a White Paper.

Ditto Liz Truss’s announcment on a £95,000 cap on exit payments when public sector workers leave their jobs. “Six-figure taxpayer-funded public sector exit payments to end,” gov.uk’s headline declares.  The sub-heading is more candid than the one beneath the housing headline.  “A consultation has been launched outlining how the government will introduce a £95,000 cap to stop huge exit payments when public sector workers leave their jobs,” it says.  The Treasury confirms that legislation will be required.

Now think on.  As Sam goes on to say, Theresa May’s successor may take against these ideas or indeed all of them.  In which case, they will doubtless be quietly put to sleep.  And that successor may be in place soon.  (Regretfully, we have to add: as soon as possible after European Parliament elections, assuming these happen, please.)

Conservative MPs don’t want a general election.  Nor do we.  But the more one ponders the state of this Parliament, the more one sees why one is the natural solution to this impasse – and would be knocking on the door, were it not for the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.  These recent announcements are Potemkin Legislation.  They cannot be put to the Commons without risk of them being amended out of their original intention.

Nor can the Government legislate easily elsewhere.  Consider any proposals affecting women – to take us back to near where we started.  Up would pop Stella Creasy, looking for a means of changing the abortion laws in Northern Ireland.  Which would further strain the Conservatives’ relationship with the DUP, such as it is.  Prepare, when Brexit isn’t before the Commons, for many more Opposition Days.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Potemkin legislation

Westlake Legal Group Screen-Shot-2019-04-17-at-07.25.35 Potemkin legislation Work Women and equality Women wages Treasury ToryDiary Stella Creasy MP sport Sam Coates (The Times) Sajid Javid MP rent Public Sector Northern Ireland NHS Local government and local elections Local Elections (general) Liz Truss MP Julian Assange jobs James Brokenshire MP immigration housing Home and family Highlights healthcare Health football Family and relationships exports employment Elizabeth Truss MP Economy DUP divorce disability Diane Abbott MP David Gauke MP David Blanchflower Conservatives Abortion

The ten most recent subjects covered by the Conservative Party’s Twitter feed are as follows: record employment, the provision of free sanitary products in primary schools, Conservative councils recycling more than Labour ones, more statistics about work and wages, record women’s employment, workers’ rights, an exports increase, more disabled people in employment, an end to no fault evictions, Conservative councils fixing more potholes than Labour ones, banning upskirting, funding more toilets at motorway service areas to help people living with complex disabilities, Sajid Javid criticising Diane Abbott over Julian Assange, kicking out racism in football, and a new law to protect service animals.

One might pick out three main themes, local election campaigning aside.

The first is the vibrancy of Britain’s jobs market and the country’s robust recent record on employment.  The aftermath of the Crash and the Coalition’s slowing of public spending growth, a.k.aa “austerity”, didn’t bring the five million unemployed that David Blanchflower believed possible.  The Government has to keep shouting about our employment rates because people have got used to them.  A generation is growing up that cannot remember the mass unemployment of the 1980s.

Then there are a battery of announcements aimed disproportionately at younger women voters, who were more likely to switch to Labour at the last election.  Those of a certain disposition will argue that some of these are trivial, and that women and men both want government to get on with addressing big issues: Brexit, health, the economy, immigration, education and so on.  But part of the point of banning upskirting, say, or providing more free sanitary products is gaining “permission to be heard”, in order to make some voters, in this case younger female ones, more receptive to what Conservatives are doing more broadly and widely.

Which takes us, third, to law-making – not admitttedly the only means, or even necessarily the main one, by which government can act, but indispensable none the less.  Under which category we find a new law to protect service animals and the proposed end to no fault evictions, about which James Brokenshire wrote on this site recently.  The two may seem to have nothing in common but, on closer inspection, tell part of the same story.

Namely that, as Sam Coates keeps pointing out, the Government can’t get any plan which is remotely contentious through the Commons.  Only the most uncontested ideas, such as providing police and other service dogs with more protections, can make it through the House. And this new service animals measure isn’t even Government leglislation.  It came about through a Private Members Bill tabled by Oliver Heald and then backed by Ministers.

Meanwhile, the proposal to end no fault evictions isn’t contained in a Bill at all.  The headline on gov.uk about the plan refers to an “end to unfair evictions” and “the biggest change to the private rental sector for a generation”.  But the text of the announcement refers to “plans to consult on new legislation” and refers to an earlier consultation, on Overcoming the barriers to longer tenancies in the private rented sector, to which it has now published a response.

As with housing, so with divorce.  On ConservativeHome today, Frank Young makes the point, in his article on the Government’s plans to ensure that no fault divorce can take place more frequently, that “it remains to be seen if the Justice Department’s enthusiasm for new legislation will be matched by government business managers and the ability of the current government to get any legislation through”.  For David Gauke has unfurled not a new Bill, but a White Paper.

Ditto Liz Truss’s announcment on a £95,000 cap on exit payments when public sector workers leave their jobs. “Six-figure taxpayer-funded public sector exit payments to end,” gov.uk’s headline declares.  The sub-heading is more candid than the one beneath the housing headline.  “A consultation has been launched outlining how the government will introduce a £95,000 cap to stop huge exit payments when public sector workers leave their jobs,” it says.  The Treasury confirms that legislation will be required.

Now think on.  As Sam goes on to say, Theresa May’s successor may take against these ideas or indeed all of them.  In which case, they will doubtless be quietly put to sleep.  And that successor may be in place soon.  (Regretfully, we have to add: as soon as possible after European Parliament elections, assuming these happen, please.)

Conservative MPs don’t want a general election.  Nor do we.  But the more one ponders the state of this Parliament, the more one sees why one is the natural solution to this impasse – and would be knocking on the door, were it not for the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.  These recent announcements are Potemkin Legislation.  They cannot be put to the Commons without risk of them being amended out of their original intention.

Nor can the Government legislate easily elsewhere.  Consider any proposals affecting women – to take us back to near where we started.  Up would pop Stella Creasy, looking for a means of changing the abortion laws in Northern Ireland.  Which would further strain the Conservatives’ relationship with the DUP, such as it is.  Prepare, when Brexit isn’t before the Commons, for many more Opposition Days.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com