The case for urbanism: reminding Labour what it stood for

New_House_BuildingThis post is by Shaun Spiers, chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). It is a version of a post featured on CPRE’s blog.

Good ideas can lose political currency for no good reason.  For example, the government has simply chosen to ignore the evidence that building new roads is not the solution to congestion.  A long-standing political and academic consensus has been abandoned without explanation.  Perhaps the government just got bored of the evidence.

A similar phenomenon seems to have occurred with urbanism.  For over 20 years there was agreement that it is better to intensify towns and cities than build in the countryside.  But policies begun by Conservative ministers, not least John Gummer, came to be associated with the Labour government, worst of all, with that great bogeyman of the political right, John Prescott.  Medium densities of 30-50 dwellings a hectare meant tiny apartments in tower blocks.  Brownfield first was all about town cramming and building in back gardens.  So policies that had saved vast areas of countryside and helped revive many urban areas were simply junked by the coalition.

Labour has forgotten the case for urban densification
Well, that’s politics.  But what is more surprising is the extent to which Labour has lost its belief in urbanism.  At the fag-end of the Labour years it was hard to find any minister willing to celebrate the achievements of its planning policies.  And, now in opposition, the party has asked Sir Michael Lyons to review housing policy with terms of reference that assume the need for new settlements and urban expansion into the countryside.

CPRE is not opposed in principle to new settlements.  They are an option when other options are exhausted.  And we have long championed well designed urban extensions where existing settlements lack the capacity to meet need.

But surely the priority should be to develop vacant land and empty buildings in towns and cities, near to schools, shops and public transport?  Labour has forgotten the case for urban densification and it seems unwilling to listen to those making it.  There is a wealth of literature worth reading, including Becky Willis’s The proximity principle: why we are living too far apart and Family housing: the power of concentration.  But is the party interested?

The country needs genuinely sustainable development
Its focus seems overwhelmingly to be on the number of new houses built.  The country does need more housing, but as Danny Dorling has argued, simply building homes for investors or to boost the buy-to-let market will not solve the housing crisis.  We need genuinely sustainable development (another concept that fell out of fashion for no good reason) not just an uplift in housing delivery regardless of its quality, location or ownership.

CPRE’s response to the Lyons Review asks the Labour party to revisit the achievements of Lord Rogers’s Urban Task Force, with its emphasis on high quality design and master-planning.  The urban renaissance did a good deal for cities such as London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, but other towns and cities benefited less, and they risk further decline if future housing policies favour new settlements and an automatic right for already thriving towns to grow into the countryside.

The planning system can play a critical role in directing development to the most appropriate sites, which are not necessarily the most profitable for developers.  To help unlock suitable land for development we propose a ‘greenfield levy’, money from which could be used to remediate or aid development on brownfield land.

Local authorities should be the focus to increase supply
We also recognise that the major house builders, on whom the government has pinned its hopes, are unlikely to deliver a big increase in supply.  Why should they?  On the whole their focus in on increasing margins, partly by building bigger houses in the south east, where possible on greenfield sites, and their profits are very healthy indeed.  So consideration should be given to requiring local authorities to allocate land specifically for self and custom build housing.

The Labour party is drawing heavily on the experience of two Labour held local authorities, Stevenage and Oxford City, both of which want to expand into the surrounding Green Belt countryside without demonstrating that they have exhausted all other options.  Labour should support the plan-led system (and the Green Belt) and not policy-by-anecdote.

CPRE has responded to the Lyons Review as part of the Smart Growth UK coalition, along with the Campaign for Better Transport, Civic Voice and the British Land Reclamation Society.  It would be good to have some sign that the Labour party is willing to listen and engage.


  • “CPRE is not opposed in principle to new settlements. They are an option when other options are exhausted.”

    Other options will never be exhausted. There will always be brownfield land and opportunities for urban extensions. New settlements should be possible when they are the most suitable – not the only – option from among a portfolio. It’s a false choice in any case – you could quite legitimately pursue all three options in a balanced way. It’s not one or the others.

  • Roger Parker, MSc (Agric.Econ), Commercial Energy Assessor

    I too am troubled by this either/or perspective. Land is a scarce resource and as such we should be asking the fundamental question of whether we are making the best use of it.

    eg locally, are the buildings in the right place? The social/economic moves on. When the industrial revolution began, the factories went up where the resources were for the manufacture – water, flat land, energy source, transport links. In many areas and valleys, the industry has decline and/or moved away leaving large areas of unused or underused flat land. In terms of optimum use, should we not be thinking of land swap – building the housing to where it is now needed and on less desirable agricultural land so reinstating the urban plains back to prime agricultural use? The Green Belt is a straight-jacket. There is a need to shuffle the urban build around the board to optimise land use.

    Again, there is all this talk of not building on undesirable flood plains. Why not? It only requires a different type of house design. The ground floor could be designed water-tight and used for movable storage, like for cars, utilities, etc, and for the accommodation part to start on the first floor with an aesthetically-designed ramped entrance up to it. Other countries do it. The demand for extensive gardens and gardening has lessened thus the occasional flood-over is not that onerous. Nature quickly revives itself.

    Flexibility is the name of the game, and use of land is no different to the use of any other resource, hence within a district urban/non-urban Land Swap might be an option.

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