Let Boles be bold

While most of the policy universe was busy speculating on the contents of the Leveson report this morning, new Planning Minister Nick Boles was waxing lyrical to the TCPA conference on the value of beauty. He made a robust call for beautiful homes in well designed places, in line with the tradition of medieval villages, Edinburgh’s New Town, and Letchworth Garden City – and repeated the assertion made on Newsnight the night before that too many new builds are ‘pig ugly.’

Words like this are bound to raise passions – and already Boles’ claim that we need to increase the proportion of England that is developed from around 9% to 12% has earned him a nuclear response from the CPRE. But as someone who’s spent years trying to make this debate a little less bland and cosy, I find it very refreshing to hear a government minister speaking plainly – and being prepared to upset a few people along the way. Consensus is fine, and bringing people with you can be vital – but sometimes you have to accept that getting things done means taking on some vested interests and sacrificing the odd policy shibboleth.

One example: lazy politicians and commentators tend to parrot the superficially plausible line that because money is finite you can’t have quality and quantity at the same time. We need to tackle this lie head on, as Boles is doing. Firstly, building cramped, ugly homes increases the local resistance to new development, which local authorities (and often backbench MPs) respond to by blocking planning applications. So lower quality leads to lower quantity, not more.

Secondly – and this is where I may part company with the new minister – allowing new homes to get smaller and crummier pushes up land values, as the highest bidder for a site will be the one that reckons he can get the most homes on to it and spend the least building them. Weak planning allows – even necessitates – this sort of race to the bottom, as developers bidding for land are never sure what will get permission.

In this analysis, weakening planning still further will make viability worse, not better.  The Growth & Infrastructure Bill currently being rushed through Parliament threatens to do just that, by opening existing permissions to the same doubt and uncertainty that bedevils the early stages of development.

By contrast, strong planning rules (and building regs) provide greater certainty, reduce speculation, and so drive the cost of land down, making quality development more viable. And a stronger core of rules that sets the fundamentals for viable and sustainable development can then afford to let go of some of the more detailed rules that get derided as ‘red tape.’ Boles needs to build on his brave start, follow his own logic further and insist that new plans include strong basic rules. Here’s two he should prioritise: a properly evidence based proportion of truly affordable homes, and an absolute requirement that all new homes are built to clear, decent space standards.

Let’s hope Boles’ vision for local and neighbourhood planning succeeds in delivering on his promise of a massive increase in supply. It’s heartening to have a minister on the case who understands the issues more than most.