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Mark Hook: One size does not fit all when it comes to planning

Cllr Mark Hook is the Leader of Gosport Borough Council.

Let me congratulate our newly elected leader, Boris Johnson, with his energetic style of management, along with the many new faces in the cabinet looking to bring in additional successful measures beyond what have achieved to date.

From a local Government perspective, there are many things I and my colleagues would like to see happen. We are told the times of austerity are over, yet the shackles and financial burdens we find ourselves under make it difficult day by day to deliver the ever-increasing demands placed on us by central Government and to meet the expectations of the public. Much has already been said and written, issues such as care of the elderly, education, education, education, combating crime and disorder, employing 20,000 new police officers, the work carried out by the NHS and its funding streams. Yet there are many other topics which need careful consideration.

One concern is the National Planning Policy Framework.

The NPPF contains all the matters of Standard Methodology, Affordability Uplift, and the Housing Delivery Test, and is used to determine how many residential dwellings each local authority will have to deliver over a given period to meet the Government’s housing target – currently set at 300,000 dwellings per year. That Standard Methodology is largely based upon household and population projections.

When first devised, these projections generally supported house building approaching the Government’s 300,000 annual target.  However, things have changed following the result of the EU Referendum and those projections have substantially reduced the required number of additional houses needed using the Standard Methodology. Some have suggested the number could even be as low as 159,000 per year. The Government has thus far wanted to stick with the 300,000 target, irrespective of what their own Standard Methodology says.  I believe this has put the Planning Inspectorate in a bit of quandary.  On the one hand they have the Government telling them to allow development, and on the other they are obliged to take account of Local Plans that have the backing of communities through statutory consultation and approved by the Secretary of State.

However, when we look at my district, Gosport, which is currently 72 per cent built on, 12 times the national average, it is unsurprising we have very little available space left. We can help deliver housing numbers through the many brownfield sites left vacant through the reduction in the Armed Forces over the past four decades but what we need is to bring prosperity back into the Borough.

Regarding the remaining areas we have, we need to ensure there is sufficient green open spaces and strategic gaps between settlements. What we do have left, we need for employment as we have a job density of only 0.51, the seventh-lowest in the country. Yet the people of Gosport have a great work ethic with over 20,000 people out commuting daily to work with a struggling road network trying to cope to meet the demand.

With what little space we have available to build on, I would like to see jobs being created and delivered, bringing with it the economic prosperity to our town. People should be able to live, work and play to give them a better quality of life instead of the need to commute, spending hours on the roads adding to congestion, pollution, and poor air quality. People are reliant on the motor car as we don’t have a railway station, although there is heavy investment in public infrastructure through bus transport which helps. You see one size does not fit all.

These problems are not ours alone. Neighbouring authorities are having to look at where they can build houses, even suggesting building in strategic gaps creating urban sprawl, which should be resisted at all costs to ensure we keep the identity and sovereignty of our own communities. However, under the current NPPF it is extremely difficult to meet the demands placed upon us.

So what is it that we would like our Government to do? What is it that we would say to our new energetic leader? We would say please be understanding that some authorities’ needs are different from others. Some authorities are full to capacity and need to deliver improved services for the residents already living there.

In looking for a way through this, we might be able to offer the new Prime Minister with a fragile minority administration a possible way out. The NPPF provision contains, I would contend, unintended consequences. In places like Gosport, and other similar local authorities where there are unique and peculiar circumstances, local considerations are such that the Standard Methodology involving top-down housing targets is counter-productive.  What we therefore need is some flexibility from the Government that will allow local authorities more discretion over housing numbers provided they have a robust case.

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

Bob Seely: Scrap the automatic Right to Buy. And nine other ideas to make housing sustainable.

Bob Seely is Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight.

Whoever becomes our next Prime Minister needs to bring fresh thinking to housing. We can’t have more of the same. The current policies are flawed, built on a system which is a failed mix of free market (land banking, a tax regime manipulated for developers’ benefit, unsustainable housing estates) and over-complex planning regulations.

Overall, Britain is moving to a more sustainable economic model. We need to do the same in housing. We need a model which stresses recycling of existing buildings as well as existing brownfield sites. We need to use space more efficiently, and design a tax system to encourage this. We need to increase density in towns, where there are services and communities, rather than using up greenbelt, where there are none. We need to reform the system to allow more of the right houses to be built, in the right areas, in the right styles. We need to give councillors the confidence to demand better from the system.

First, the facts. Britain needs houses. The number of households is projected to grow by 159,000 per year based on current trends. We need between 250,000 and 340,000 additions per year to clear the backlog of over 4.7 million households with housing need across Great Britain.

But it’s not just the right numbers we need, it’s the right type of housing. Both old and young are being squeezed. For the young, house prices have grown seven times faster than family incomes, according to IFS research – meaning many can no longer afford to own their home. In 1995-96, some 65 per cent of 25-34-year-olds with incomes in the middle 20 percent for their age owned their own home. Twenty years later, that figure was just 27 percent.

For older folk, households headed by a pensioner account for 88 percent of the projected growth in households between now and 2041, yet an NPI study found “there is a very limited choice for older person households” moving home.

In addition, housing is being built in the wrong places. According to the CPRE, there are currently 460,000 homes planned on Green Belt land. These developments lack affordable homes, are not near services, are car dependent and require new infrastructure. They are truly unsustainable.

My constituency of the beautiful Isle of Wight reflects this national problem. We are being told to build too many homes, in the wrong places, and they will not be for Islanders.

So how do we build better, whilst treading carefully in our countryside? Below are ten ideas.

First, Stamp Duty is killing the market. It’s too high. Evidence from over two dozen prominent voices including the Adam Smith Institute, IPPR and IFS indicates that Stamp Duty is blocking 45,000 property purchases a year, preventing young and old from moving. We should scrap it or reduce it.

Second, utilise our current property stock better. Some 634,453 dwellings were vacant in England on 1st October 2018. Some of those were properties over shops. A UK-wide flats-over-the-shop capital allowance scheme (Flat Conversion Allowance) was repealed in 2012. We should open it again and simplify the system to encourage investment in town and city centres. Let’s make undeveloped spaces above shops economically attractive to live in, but economically painful to sit on.

Third, introduce a multi-million pound ‘bungalow fund’ to convert bungalows into two or more housing units. This would encourage housing associations and councils to buy up bungalows with assumed planning consent for adding a storey to create two properties. Thus, we gently increase density in towns and villages, where there are already services.

Fourth, we should reduce or scrap VAT on all renovations – and consider adding VAT on green belt and green field development. A study on the effects of reducing VAT for renovation and repair from 20 percent to five percent for the years from 2015-2020 projected a total stimulus effect of more than £15.1 billion and 42,050 extra full-time equivalent construction jobs by the end of 2020. It also found a potential saving of up to 237,128 tonnes of CO2 as homes are improved. This is yet another example where lower tax leads to overall economic gain.

Fifth, help smaller councils and housing associations to bid for the £9 billion available to establish a new generation of Council/Starter/Key Worker Housing. This funding should be available to all councils and housing associations, not just some as is currently the case. My council on the Isle of Wight, if it was allowed access to government cash, would build community housing more quickly than developers. The Government should also seek to pass land held by its departments to councils more quickly. It has taken 12 years for Homes England and its predecessor to release land for housing and jobs in East Cowes on the Island; unacceptable!

Sixth, increase community involvement in housing and strengthen local democracy. Give parish and town councils statutory consultee status. Make neighbourhood plans easier to develop. Encourage councils to develop housing strategies for local need rather than just plans which meet government targets. Extend time to oppose planning applications and prevent manipulative developers from gaming the system. Ensure that councils get infrastructure money from developments – known as Section 106 cash – even if they oppose the development. Allow councils – and MPs – to apply to withdraw planning permission.

Seventh, give housing associations greater power to evict anti-social tenants.

Eighth, scrap the automatic Right To Buy and find more cost-effective ways to support home ownership. For example, rent-to-buy schemes. These schemes support homeowning aspirations by allowing young renters to pay below market rates for housing with a chunk of their money going to a house deposit. For one rent-to-buy policy, over a million people could move into home ownership.

Ninth, build beautiful. Local planning should include clear local design and style guidelines. On the Island, we have a beautiful cottage and brickwork style, unique to us. It is painfully ironic that over 100 years ago we were building better housing for the poorest people in our society than we are now.

Finally, give leeway to local councils to chose a different methodology for assessing housing need, and allow councils, provided they behave responsibly, to assess their own housing requirement.

To sum up, let’s introduce a sustainable, recycling model for housing and land use. Get housing right and we deliver lots of social and economic good – and please old and new electoral constituencies. Get it wrong and we alienate our core voters without winning over new ones. It should be an easy choice.

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

How can the nation’s beauty be regained?

The Building Better Building Beautiful Commission has published its interim report. Until April, the Commission was chaired by Sir Roger Scruton – who was ousted after being scandalously misrepresented by the New Statesman. The magazine has belatedly apologised. Since then The Commission’s Chairman has been Nicholas Boys Smith, the founder of Create Streets. The most obvious part of its mission is to challenge the defeatist assumption that new buildings must inevitably be ugly. Given the extent of the devastation to so many of our towns and cities since the Second World War that sense of defeatism is understandable. As the report says:

“Self-consciously and deliberately twentieth century planners and architects rejected the traditional town with its clear centre, composed facades, mix of uses and its walkable density. We have encountered in our evidence much consternation at the injuries done to older settlements though much of the twentieth century by buildings’ scale, nature and positioning.”

Despite that strong sense of gloom, it is wrong to despair. The Princes Foundation recently brought out a report with pictures of some wonderful development projects.

However, the Commission makes clear that beautiful buildings are not enough:

“Beauty is not just what buildings look like (though it does include this) but the wider ‘spirit of the place’, our overall settlement patterns and their interaction with nature. This entails both the beauty of our streets and squares, what makes them distinct and also the wider patterns of how we live and the demands we make on our natural environment and the planet.”

“What is civilisation?” asked Kenneth Clark in his 1969 television series Civilisation. “I don’t know… but I think I can recognise it when I see it and I’m looking at it now. ” As he spoke he turned to look at Notre-Dame cathedral. Defining beauty might pose similar difficulties. But what is hard to dispute is that a vast number of the concrete slabs, blocks, and towers constructed in recent decades lack it. Not even the architects responsible for disfiguring our country claim their aim was beauty. For them “brutalism” is not an insult but their life’s work.

Nonetheless to declare that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” offers a convenient excuse to give up on the cause. But the report argues:

“That beauty might be subjective, purely a ‘matter of taste’ (if that is indeed the case) is a very bad reason to dismiss it. So much in our social, cultural and political lives is subjective. Feeling is what moves most of us more than reason. Public disenchantment with so much of what has been built since the war cannot be adequately captured in facts and numbers; it is a powerful and present feeling of loss. Some argue that to talk of beauty when we are in midst of a housing crisis is a distraction. Such an argument is based on the fallacy that somehow one precludes the other – that quality and quantity are at odds.”

By the way, Sir Roger, who was a professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck College, would not concede that it is subjective. The report acknowledges this case by adding:

“Beauty is not a veneer that is laid on top of utility. It is the most important part of utility, since it is what makes buildings and settlements into fit places to live. This is revealed in the adaptability of beautiful buildings and the disposal nature of ugliness. And this is why there are good philosophical reasons for rejecting the idea that beauty is a matter of subjective opinion, without foundation in human nature or in our desire to live at peace with our neighbours.”

It comes down to how the decisions are made:

“Currently judgements about beauty are being made covertly. Places and buildings look and feel the way they do not by accident but by choice. The problem is that that most people do not have access to the discussion about the choices or don’t feel that their voices and opinions matter.”

It is one thing to agree the planning system is at fault. Quite another to resolve what is the matter with it:

“Some believe the problem is too much planning. Some believe that it is too little. We have to understand the dynamic of different perspectives, and to get beyond them where we can. Our planning process is criticised from nearly all sides as ‘broken’, and those charged with maintaining and implementing it seem often to be de-moralised. But planning for the public good should be a noble and exciting profession. And there is much that is precious in our approach: civic involvement and the trust that this has engendered, to say nothing of the protection of many beautiful landscapes and historic buildings. So this loss of trust is a serious derogation from our inheritance. How do we win trust back whilst building enough beautiful and popular homes in the right places and in the ‘gentle density’ sustainable settlement patterns which we know are better for residents and for the environment?”

One of the Commission’s recommendations is illegal. The proposal is to have zero VAT for the renovation of buildings. Perversely VAT is charged for that but not for new building. The Commission says:

“As awareness of the benefits of a ‘circular economy’ approach to the environment and the economy increases, we should look at ways to incentivise re-use of existing buildings to prevent new build being the default ‘easier’ option. For example, we would like Government to consider the alignment of VAT treatment of repair and maintenance work for existing buildings with construction of new buildings.”

The Government would be breaking EU rules to do so. But if Brexit takes place at some stage, as some of us are hoping, that would be an entirely legal and eminently sensible reform. That is not just about bring homes back into use. There are a lot of empty derelict buildings around that could be adapted for housing even though they were originally built for other reasons. Greater flexibility of the planning rules would also help. As the report says:

“Retail planning used to be divided into ‘convenience’ (essentially food) and ‘comparison’ (non-food). These were divided into ‘bulk’ (weekly supermarket shop/buying a dishwasher) and ‘top up’ (daily or ad hoc). Then there was ‘local’ (small parades and centres of small settlements) and ‘higher order’ (city centres to which people from neighbouring settlements travel). Put simply, internet shopping and delivery has rendered this model obsolete. Landlords are therefore sitting on property held at a book value that the potential rental income no longer supports. However, it is often hard to support change of use to lower rent commercial or other uses due to rates liability. Sometimes change of use is also not permitted. Thus, too many high streets are not evolving as they need to do.” 

But what the new homes look like remains the key controversy. The Commission feels that the public – rather than planners or architects – should decide. That is the way for beauty to win. They make the recommendation sound as dull as possible:

“There is greater scope to encourage the use of deliberative engagement and design processes to facilitate wider community engagement in design solutions at all levels of scale. Consideration needs to be given to how this might be better resourced whether through public / private partnership arrangements or neighbourhood planning; by adopting protocols for community and stakeholder engagement in the production of detailed visual design briefs for important sites; and through the use of ‘enquiry by design’ or similar techniques to assist the master planning of strategic and sensitive sites. There should be much greater weight placed in planning applications on the criteria set out within the Statement of Community Involvement to demonstrate how proposals have evolved as a result of local feedback. The Commission is concerned with the quality and breadth of public engagement with the plan making (as opposed to the development control) process. This needs to be systemically improved and is critical. We need to move the democracy forwards to an earlier point in the process.”

If that was given teeth it would be very powerful. Local design codes reflecting popular wishes would probably mean the end of tower blocks and a huge revival for neo-classicism. There would actually be a great advantage for developers in that there would be greater certainty in what would be approved. The long delay and costs in legal fees would be reduced.

Some imagine that the profit motive explains the failure to provide beauty. But ugly buildings can be more expensive. Anna Mansfield of the public realm consultancy, told the Commission:

“I was working on a PFI project ten years ago, and we were told by the contractor to put in a more expensive material that looked cheaper because there was real sensitivity about anything in the NHS looking expensive.” 

That greater simplicity of design codes would also mean a reduced burden on the planning system. Yet the Royal Town Planning Institute, the planning officers trade union, has had the nerve to demand “more resources” if this approach was adopted. Not a hint of contrition for the harm its members have inflicted on us. Just a demand for more money. It would be naive to imagine that spending more money would do any good. The great majority of planning officers know that the public have a different view. The planning officers are convinced the public is wrong. Just giving planning officers a pay rise will not convert them to the cause of beauty.

The challenge is not money but political will. I am reminded of the failure of Michael Gove to reduce the number of children in care by persuading the social workers to be more favourable towards adoption. The social workers were not to be persuaded as they were ideologically opposed. Nor will the planners or architects by persuaded that neo-classicism is the way forward. For that change to come it would need to be forced through. That can’t be fudged. It is a battle between the planners and the people. The Government has to take sides.

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

Stephanos Ioannou: Overdevelopment means the traditional London suburbs are under threat

Cllr Stephanos Ioannou is a councillor for Southgate in Enfield. He is studying Public Policy at Kings College London.

It’s not every day you would hear a young person who has hopes of soon getting on to the property ladder, echoing concerns about overdevelopment in one of the most expensive and sought after capitals in the world. But this statement is slowly creeping into the reality of what is happening in our capital, and overdevelopment is beginning to seriously change the suburban parts of London.

The majority of applications I see coming through Enfield Council’s planning department have the justified intent of elaborating and improving the current situation that families find themselves in. Whether it be a simple loft conversion, rear or back extension, or even the garage conversion, I mostly see these applications as positive contributions to the Southgate area, where more and more families are moving to reap the benefits of great schools and local services. However, where things begin to get complex is with the applications that involve changing the whole character of an area, and therefore setting a blueprint for future developments in the area.

I am talking specifically about an application that was received to build a 17 storey building in the heart of Southgate, that will bring with it 200 new homes for families and professionals. At first glance, I was positive about these proposals but realised that residents in the community, and particularly neighbouring residents would be quite negative towards these proposals. This is because of the skyline effect, and most importantly the impact on local services and local infrastructure for the Southgate area. In taking another case, we have in neighbouring Barnet and Finchley Central the plans outlined by Transport for London and the Mayor of London of a new development that will involve 600 new homes, and a twenty-seven storey building that will change the face of central Finchley for good. Finally, we can bear witness to the ‘Save West Hampstead’ campaign that is focusing on stopping council led over-development by bringing together residents association across the borough to fight against high tower block plans.

With the examples given, it’s clear there is a correlation happening across the London boroughs with overdevelopment. Unlike before, councils with the assistance of developers are more willing to start plans with an extraordinary level of floors attached to tower blocks, essentially going in ‘high and tough’ and slowly but gently reducing the number of floors, still to a level that is mostly unacceptable to most existing residents in the community.

Buildings in cities should not be designed in isolation, but in relation to the places in which they are set, whether these are views to and from world heritage sites or the fabric of adjoining streets. Together with its present and future neighbours, new development should make accessible public spaces that are a pleasure to inhabit – the effects of tall buildings are as important at ground level as they are in the sky. And the larger and more prominently placed a building is, the greater the care that should be taken over its design.

Nobody could go to the places already being shaped by towers – Elephant and Castle, Vauxhall or Stratford High Street, a discus-throw from the Olympic Park – and say that these are great places to linger, or that the tall buildings now rising there enhance the experience. Images of these places in the future, when further skyscrapers will jostle for attention, suggest more of the same. New urban zones are being created with no overall idea of how the parts contribute to the whole, of the places that are being made at their base.

Rather, new London tower design tends to go out of its way to be as assertive and architecturally antisocial as possible. Strata SE1 in Elephant and Castle, with its slashed rooftop, randomised aluminium cladding patterns and bulbous form, seems to be setting out to be as hostile as possible to any future neighbour. In Stratford the fashion is for arbitrary clashing colours – another idea that kills the prospect of making coherent public places.
Nor, when you get close to a building such as St George’s Tower in Vauxhall, would you say that you are in the presence of quality. Its details clash and its cladding looks cheap and plasticky. There is no great reason to believe that these surfaces will age well. Images of proposed future projects, such as the Quill in Bermondsey and 1 Merchant Square in Paddington, suggest little improvement in the future.

Combined with frantic attempts at individuality is a profound sameness. These projects tend to use the same type of cladding and floor layouts. It is sometimes said that London needs skyscrapers to make an “iconic” statement on the world stage, but these developments make it look less distinctive. And if the city tries to engage in the global race for height, it can only lose. It is outpaced by the likes of Shanghai and Dubai, the height of whose Burj Khalifa is 2.7 times that of the Shard.

Overall, the point here is that tall buildings do not define nor improve an area just by simply being constructed. The traditional semi-detached houses of north London and the leafy suburbs are things you cannot achieve as much as you try with tall tower blocks.

Conservation areas are areas of ‘special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance’. This imposes a duty on the council, in exercising its planning powers, to pay special attention to the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of the area.

However what is said will happen on paper is different from the reality taking place across parts of suburban north London. Take for example the neglect by Tfl over Southgate Tube Station, where the 1930’s structure of Christopher Holden has been left to rust and decay over the years and still no work has taken place to preserve this heritage. Take also the neglect by Enfield Council to preserve existing areas around Southgate Green. I am sure that this is happening across other London boroughs too and I would invite other councillors to explain the situation in their parts- but overall my message is that we should be preserving our areas of heritage and not succumb to the overdevelopment that some parties are trying to push through rigorously.

In preserving heritage, councils can take action by educating local school pupils about points of interest in their areas, or even driving investment in local heritage sites. Research published by Historic England shows that, in 2015, domestic and international heritage-related visits generated £16.4 billion in expenditure in England, contributing £2 billion to the Exchequer in tax revenue. It seems logical therefore that councils should weigh up the impact and consequences of building dense tower block housing, or investing in existing conservation areas thus boosting the local economy.

Slowly we will see changes to the leafy suburban parts of London, being replaced by tall ten-plus storey blocks of flats that will be branded as ‘affordable’ so they say, but in reality are a quick buck for developers and the council who will generate council tax revenue, with no guarantee they will be reinvested back into that specific community.

Here in Enfield, all Section 106 funds that are generated from developments across the borough and being streamlined into the Meridian Water scheme, instead of being reinvested directly back into the communities that have seen these extraordinary developments. With that said, the planning department are trying to reassure us councillors that funds will be requested from the developers further than just for Meridian Water, but this will only be voluntary on their behalf. I am sure that developers would rather retain as much profit as possible, in comparison to giving more funds-especially voluntary ones.

London and its landscape are changing, and with that communities are battling against a change to their once characteristic neighbourhoods. Councils and developers have scant regard for the existing residents, and more so for the conservation areas they are situated in.

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

Gareth Lyon: Building out is the way to victory in Rushmoor

Cllr Gareth Lyon is a councillor in Rushmoor and the Chairman of the Aldershot and North Hants Conservative Association.

It has been 80 years since Herbert Morrison allegedly talked about “building the Tories out of London” – and his plan to pile huge amounts of poor quality housing into Conservative constituencies, change the demographics, and cause a backlash against the sitting MPs.

Over recent decades, it has certainly become accepted wisdom that development equals unpopularity. This seems, on the face of it, to have been borne out by some of the recent local election results, including some in our neck of the woods – in Waverley and in Guildford – where opposition parties drummed up opposition to local plans to drive good Conservative administrations out of office.

But it does not have to be like this everywhere…

In Rushmoor Borough Council we too have been going through the local planning process – successfully passing through it a couple of months prior to the election. It was telling that when this was debated at full council, the Labour and Lib Dem opposition were reduced to a search for typos and pagination errors in their desperate search to have something to criticise.

This followed several years in which Rushmoor has been undergoing massive development across both of its towns (Aldershot and Farnborough) and in the surrounding areas, including one of the largest development projects in the South of England – Wellesley, with 4,500 new homes and accompanying infrastructure.

This latter project is a good illustration of many of the key themes of Rushmoor’s local plan which have helped contribute to, rather than mitigate against, our local electoral success as a party.

First the name – a clear reference to Aldershot’s proud and still felt military heritage. Rushmoor is unreservedly proud of its armed forces now and in the past and is determined to weave this heritage into its development. This identity is a major reason why people are proud of living here, is intended to become a significant draw for tourism, and is already helping to attract businesses in related sectors, from aviation to technology, from defence to logistics.

Westlake Legal Group aldershotpic Gareth Lyon: Building out is the way to victory in Rushmoor Rushmoor Planning Local government housing   This pro-business slant to our development is very much embedded throughout Rushmoor. The Leader, Deputy Leader, and Chief Executive are all very pro-business (big and small) and see good development as a means to help attract the skilled workers, which the increasing number of businesses investing in the area are looking for. This also means investing well in the infrastructure which the families of these workers will use (we’ve got a great new school, new centres for health, new country parks and heritage trails, and a big programme of investment in improving roads in the town centres and to employment sites.) The council sees these employers as playing an important role in reviving the town centres, if they can become attractive places for workers to go, have lunch, or spend an evening.

Regenerating the town centres lies at the heart of Rushmoor’s regeneration strategy. The Council is playing a very active role in this, buying many of the key sites itself, ensuring that the quality of housing and retail that is delivered will be genuinely attractive and beneficial to the local community, and introducing a big focus on leisure and cultural facilities.

This local plan and the development which is underway in both towns and in Wellesley did not happen by accident. The council has listened to, learned from, and delivered for residents. This is widely recognised and understood and really has left the other parties with little to work with as they try to manufacture opposition to development.

The main measure of success for the council must be the delivery of good new homes to meet local demand. On this measure there is already considerable grounds for encouragement – with the council already outpacing the level of housing required of it in the local plan.

The secondary measure though – the politics, is, if anything, even more encouraging. Despite vicious rumour-mongering by opposition parties, the Conservatives kept a clear lead in town centre wards in both towns – and saw a massive swing in our favour in the ward which contains Wellesley (which just so happens to be the ward of the recently deposed local Labour leader).

With the right approach, listening to residents, thoughtfully integrating development, building good homes, and focussing on building from our local strengths, Rushmoor really is experiencing positive development.

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

George Freeman: Our new book. In which forty Tory MPs band together to help revive conservatism

George Freeman is the founder of the 2020 Conservatives Group, the Big Tent Ideas Festival and Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum. He is MP for Mid-Norfolk.

The Conservative Party is in a hole. We need to stop digging. And start thinking seriously about the real causes of the EU referendum result, the grievances it spoke to – and set out a plan to honour that referendum result by leaving the European Union and setting out a bold programme of domestic reforms.

The EU referendum was a massive vote to reject the political status quo and embrace radical, small c conservative reform. The 17.4 million Labour, Conservative and unaligned voters who voted Leave were voting for radical change. The genius of the Leave campaign was its call to “take back control”. It spoke powerfully to huge swathes of the country feeling marginalised by a potent mix of globalisation, post-Crash austerity, an influx of low paid labour from Eastern Europe, the decline of traditional market towns and high streets, fear of economic marginalisation from automation and the gig economy and a deepening despair at a sense of injustice at the gap between the “unaccountable elites” and the ordinary citizen.

Brexit spoke to – and has enshrined – the principle divide in Britain which is no longer between Left or Right, or North and South, but between those with comfortable lives and those on the margin.

This is hardly surprising. After eight years in office overseeing painful local public spending cuts, in the wake of the £700billon bank bailout, MPs expenses scandal and Blair’s dishonest Iraq war dossier which have entrenched a sense of Parliament dangerously detached from the people it serves, the Brexit referendum was a roar for reform. A number of us had been warning David Cameron and George Osborne it was coming.

Handled properly it could – and should – have been a catalyst for that most difficult of political challenges: renewal in office. But Cameron misjudged the mood and treated Leavers with contempt. Theresa May misjudged the mood as a mandate for a toxic combination of hardline anti-business UKIP rhetoric and bureaucratic Brexit bungling.

Now we choose a new leader in the teeth of a deepening public anger and pressure – whipped up by Farage and Banks – the Dick Dastardly and Mutley of British politics – to embrace the “kamikaze” approach of an anti-business No Deal Brexit.

Get this wrong, and we risk the destruction of the Conservative Party for a generation: losing our professional, business, metropolitan and liberal supporters to the Liberal Democrats, our Leave supporters to the Brexit Party and those who just want competence in office to stay at home in despair.

If we are to avoid gifting a broken Brexit Britain to Jeremy Corbyn, John Mcdonnell and Len McClusky, the next Conservative leader has to do three things:

  • Deliver an EU Withdrawal which a majority of moderate mainstream British voters in the centre ground can support
  • Embark on some bold domestic reforms to tackle the legitimate grievances which fuelled the Referendum vote
  • Restore some grip, vision, inspiration and unity to a divided country and Party.

The scale of the revolt against the status quo demands bold reform. Not the technocratic tinkering and endless self-congratulatory initiative-launching of Ministers looking busy on Instragram, but real reform.

This is a 1975, 1945, 1905 moment of profound disruption. The old order will be replaced by a new order. The only question is who will shape it? Can the Conservative Party make this a moment of bold and inspiring renewal in the same way that Mrs Thatcher and Keith Joseph did in 1975, Attlee, Churchill, Beveridge and Butler did in 1945, and Churchill and the Liberals did in 1905 to see of socialism by creating pensions and national insurance?

Too often, we forget that the great institutions we cherish as permanent were once mere ideas – whether the NHS, the BBC, the London Docklands, universal suffrage, the Right to Buy or the privatisation of the old state industries. They were bold ideas which reshaped a whole generation and quickly became permanent fixtures.

When was the last time any modern politician had an idea on the scale of any of these? We now face a genuine battle of ideas with a resurgent hard left and we need urgently to rediscover the power of political imagination.

So what would a bold programme of Conservative reform look like today? In our book Britain Beyond Brexit: a New Conservative Vision for a New Generation, published today by the Centre for Policy Studies, I and forty MPs from all sides of the party – Leave and Remain, North and South, left and right, urban and rural – have set out a collection of pieces to frame that programme.

Our book sets out a range of policy proposals across six defining themes we believe must be at the centre of a coherent and compelling narrative for the New Conservatism: identity, opportunity, enterprise, social justice, security and citizenship.

Of course, many may ask: is the Conservative Party capable of that task, amid the seemingly endless and deepening divisions of the Brexit civil war?

The successes and failures of a post-Brexit new conservatism will be based on understanding the profound societal, economic and technological changes coming at us. Not how we return to the old dividing lines of the 1980s or 1950s, but how we address the profound challenges of our age: issues such as globalisation, digitalisation, genetic engineering, sustainable development, religious extremism and the traumatic rupture of the crash and its legacy on our public finances.

We have got to be brave enough to tackle the big issues of the day. Low and fragile growth. A fragmented health and care system. Structural deficit. Intergenerational unfairness. Deepening anxiety, disillusionment and despair. Rising pressure on weary public servants in creaking public services. Stubborn ghettos of low aspiration and deprivation. Housing unaffordability, homelessness and small town decline. Sluggish infrastructure. Bad planning.

For our elderly – and the families and community of carers who look after them, we need a fair system of funding and providing elderly care. For the young, the urgent priority is addressing housing and the wider issue of economic disenfranchisement. Put simply, we’ve built an economy where the principal mechanism for building economic security – owning a home – is getting beyond the reach of all but the most privileged. Is it any wonder that a whole generation of millennial voters – with little or no chance of acquiring a house or any capital – are seduced by the rhetoric of anti-capitalism?

We face a genuinely historic challenge: are we going to make Brexit a moment of catalytic renewal of conservatism and our nation? Or a moment of annihilation by a new alignment of a new generation of voters?

To avoid a decade of decline in a post-Brexit Britain run by Corbyn, we urgently need a new conservatism for a new generation.

I hope our book will help light the way.

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

Howard Flight: Ministers must embrace supply-side reform to revive home ownership

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The main domestic policy which helped keep the Conservatives in power in the second half of the 20th Century and especially under Thatcher was both supporting the principle of Britain being a property owning democracy, and also making it continue to happen.

In the 1980’s we achieved in excess of 70 per cent of the population owning its primary residence.

The last 20 years have seen house prices increase to levels pricing many out of the market. As people need to be housed, notwithstanding prices, this in turn led to a major increase in the buy to let market, providing in total some eight million housing units. Much of this had been achieved by entrepreneurial individuals spotting local opportunities.

While it was under the 13 years of Labour Government that the property owning democracy started to decline, measures taken by the Conservatives since returning to power in 2010 have messed around with the housing market, in several areas causing serious harm.

It has been clear for some time that it is the supply side which has been allowed to get out of kilter, largely as the result of cumbersome planning laws and requirements. If supply is less than demand for a continuous period of time, it is not surprising when house prices go on rising.

The Government’s measures to streamline the planning process have had only mixed success. A lot of the ‘Interest Group’ environmental requirements, complicating the planning process – for example ‘bats in the loft’ – have not been sensibly simplified and are causing serious supply side pressures.

The shortage of supply is likely to see rent rises of three per cent per annum over the next few years as the result of the demand for new homes outstripping supply.

Where I would have thought the most important thing for Government to be doing now is increasing the supply, we are now seeing measures which may serve to worsen the supply shortage further.

The major growth in the private rented sector with children living within it has led to much greater scrutiny of how the sector operates. It is vital that tenants and landlords both have the confidence that they can ensure their respective rights are upheld in a timely and effective way through the courts. The evidence shows, however, the court system failing to ensure that this happens.

What is needed is the establishment of a single, dedicated housing court as a matter of urgency. As the sector grows it is vital that tenants and landlords both have the confidence that they can ensure their respective rights are upheld in a timely and effective way including through the courts.

For tenants the system is far too complex. The web of different types of courts and tribunals enforcing the laws can make it difficult for a tenant to navigate the system. As a previous report by Citizens Advice noted: “the time involved in taking a disrepair claim to court puts off just under half of tenants whose landlord took longer to complete repairs than is normally reasonable”. More than half said the complexity of the process stops them.

For landlords who seek to repossess a property through the courts, for reasons such as rent arrears or anti-social behaviour by the tenant, it can take many months between applying for an order to it being enforced. Such lengthy legal limbo is not good either for the landlord or the tenant. Figures supplied by the Ministry of Justice in response to a written question from Kevin Hollinrake MP show that the average time to progress from a claim in possession in 2017 was 22 weeks across England and 25 weeks in London.

The Government has announced its intention to overhaul the way that landlords regain possession of their property to provide greater security for tenants. While it is fair that no landlord should evict a tenant without good cause, it is deeply worrying that the Government’s plans could lead to new forms of rent control.

Finally, under George Osborne’s period as Chancellor, the Treasury persuaded him that increasing the tax burden on smaller buy-to-let operators would reduce buy-to-let activity and so make available more properties for owner occupiers to buy. This has ignored the evidence that there is very little competition for the same properties between buy-to-let and owner-occupier purchasers.

The decision in 2015 to restrict mortgage interest relief for the sector was a big mistake. The argument that the tax system favoured landlords over and above home owners was simply wrong, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted at the time. The main effect has been to reduce the supply of buy to let properties, where as a result rent levels have increased. For the time being the priority should be to increase the supply of residential properties, and the best bet to this end is still buy-to-let. But we are in a crazy situation where landlords wanting to add to the net supply of homes to rent are being stung by an extra three per cent stamp duty.

The Government’s schemes for first time buyers are surprisingly generous, but can be no more that a short term palliative. It is blindingly obvious that what is needed is an increase in supply of residential property, which in turn needs both considerable streamlining of the planning system and a more positive approach to private sector landlords.

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

Jonathan Werran: Councils and business should talk about how local productivity can be improved

Jonathan Werran is the chief executive of Localis.

As the rumblings of a US presidential election begin to echo across the Atlantic, it’s a good time to recollect that where the American campaign boldly pioneers new policy and techniques, we will surely follow. Customarily open-mouthed, in slavish imitation and rather enjoying the experience.

For 2020 we need look further than dark horse outlier Andrew ‘Yangmentum’ Yang. His manifesto is one of preparing the USA for the automation revolution and the massive shifts to both blue and white collar working through Universal Basic Income.

Yang couches his radical economic reform programme for taking swing states through the inevitable social dislocation and civic trauma resulting from the next industrial revolution as ‘human-centred capitalism’.

This sensibility would, I suspect, resonate on this side of the pond. A report issued by Localis aims to explore what our major wealth generators, or local economic anchors, should be doing for the places where they are based and for the communities with which they have a symbiotic relationship.

Drawing on domestic and international experience – including Amy Goldstein’s compellingly vivid ‘Janesville: An American Story’ which detailed the impact to a mid-west town’s residents lives and wellbeing when the anchor GM plant closed – we wanted to explore what the balance between business and place currently is and should be.

Threats to jobs and the rise of the robots were identified by Localis in an earlier report warning of ‘cliff edge’ automation.

‘Prosperous Communities, Productive Places’ examines a more readily experienced danger of ‘doughnut economies’, a situation whereby local residents earn less and enjoy lower conditions than commuters entering their area to work for the major local employers.

For our money, the time is right for our big businesses to step up as responsible businesses and renew their relationship with the places which depend on their success through a fresh approach to Corporate Social Responsibility. In Local Industrial Strategies we already have strong mechanisms in place for getting to grips with new ways of working and tackling challenges that affect communities.

So we should renew the vow and commit such strategic relationships between places and big local employers to delivering higher standards for residents in the shape of “good jobs”, higher wages, stronger local skills supply chains and support for developing local housing and infrastructure for communities.

To deliver this renewed relationship, a productivity deal – effectively forming a new social contract with business – would balance increased productivity with place prosperity. It would be implicit, not regulatory and at its simplest a commitment to shared objectives. Deals would be based around a balanced scorecard of what business can do for place and what place can do for business to build sustainable and prosperous communities.

Our report includes a model productivity deal between West Sussex County Council and Gatwick Airport setting out how such a plan could be forged by strategic authorities – the likes of combined authorities in metropolitan areas and county councils in the shires.

To support these business productivity aims, the local state should, in turn, co-ordinate for its firms a local public sector innovation offer providing greater access to data, markets and finance, skills supply chain development and spatial planning.

By realising the positive effect of successful local economic anchors in building prosperous places, local areas will attract and grow productive businesses. This in turn will further strengthen the communities in which businesses are based, in a positive cycle of mutually-reinforcing prosperity.

As a relatively risk-free, bottom-up approach to making capitalism appear and be human-centred and responsive to local needs, it has to be given a try.

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 

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