Town and Country Planning Association conference speech

This is a speech delivered by Planning Minister Nick Boles about beautiful urban landscapes and affordable homes.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Nick Boles

England is famous for the beauty of its landscapes.

From the Yorkshire Dales to the South Hams, from the Weald of Kent to the Cumbrian Lakes, England glories in countryside of which generations of man and nature are joint authors.

It is these landscapes - together with the greater drama of their Celtic cousins - that draw visitors to these islands.

It is these landscapes that our most popular institution and your sister organisation, the National Trust, was set up to preserve in perpetuity.

The beauty of England is its finest asset and, for each of us, our most precious inheritance.

As a conservative in both name and spirit, as a West Country boy and a Lincolnshire MP, as the son of a former director general of the National Trust and the brother of 1 of its conservation managers,

I truly believe that nothing would do more to improve the health and happiness of the British people than if more of them got to spend more of their lives surrounded by beauty.

Beauty lifts, calms, excites, inspires.

It is more intoxicating than any narcotic, more soothing than any therapy.

As Britain becomes more prosperous, we must insist that it becomes more beautiful as well.

But the beauty we seek, and the landscapes we treasure, are not only to be found in our open spaces.

Some of the loveliest scenery in Britain is to be found in our villages, cities and towns.

I would like to take you on a journey, which starts in my constituency.

For thousands of years, the river Welland has snaked its way through the low contours of Lincolnshire from its source in Northamptonshire’s Hothorpe Hills.

It enters Lincolnshire at the point where 4 counties meet and passes through countryside that is pleasant but hardly memorable.

A wandering painter or poet would not give this stretch of the Welland valley a second look, were it not for the landscape of Lincolnshire limestone that is the town of Stamford.

Stamford is not just 1 of England’s most beautiful towns; it is 1 of its finest bits of scenery.

Man-made. Built from stone and timber frames and slate.

But the aesthetic equal of our most splendid hills, lakes and rivers.

So where did this landscape come from?

Did it spring fully formed from the mind of some 17th century master planner, the brainchild of a Lincolnshire Haussman?

Far from it.

Stamford is, as the Royal Commission for Historic Monuments pronounced, ‘a town of discrete buildings’, each 1 unique.

The earls of Exeter from nearby Burghley House provided long leases.

And the local community of wool, leather, cloth and hemp merchants, apothecaries and solicitors indulged themselves with a great variety of stone window surrounds, doorways, eaves, corner and chimney details.

They did so within a broad set of rules set out in the London manuals of Rome educated James Gibbs but almost always used local architects and builders.

Stamford was the spontaneous product of human initiative, haphazardly executed and totally unplanned, motivated by the desire for profit, the love of God and that age-old urge that keeps makeover shows in business, the desire to make your house nicer than your neighbours’.

Our next stop is north of the border, in Great Britain’s first New Town.

This, by contrast, was an example of municipal town planning at its boldest and most inspired.

Responding to the economic stagnation into which Edinburgh had slipped after the Act of Union, in 1752 the Provost, George Drummond, launched an architectural competition to design a new cityscape of wide streets, crescents and squares, featuring symmetrical terraces of town-houses as well as purpose-built shops and public gardens.

Twenty-six year old James Craig won the competition and, in 4 stages between the 1760s and the 1850s, he, Robert Adam, William Chambers and William Playfair all stayed loyal to the original vision and developed their own variations on a Greek revival theme.

In building their New Town, Edinburgh’s town councillors not only restored commercial and cultural vigour to Scotland’s capital.

They also created 1 of the most beautiful landscapes in the British Isles.

Who can resist the melancholy charm of a walk in the rain around Charlotte Square and through Ainslie Place?

I would wager that the Facebook pages of recent visitors to Scotland contain at least as many photographs of Bute House and Moray Place as they do of Loch Lomond or Glencoe.

In Stamford in the early 1600s, and in Edinburgh 150 later, beauty came about as a result of the natural human urge to get together with one’s neighbours to build a place in which it would be a pleasure to live and work, to raise a family and do business.

It is the same generous set of instincts that, another hundred and fifty years later, inspired Ebenezer Howard to build Letchworth Garden City.

I know I am skating on very thin ice telling members of the Town and Country Planning Association anything about the Garden City movement, when your association was founded to promote just that.

But I do want take a moment, as a layman, lacking all planning qualifications, to say why, like the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, I believe that we have so much to learn from Ebenezer Howard and his garden cities.

The genius of Letchworth, like so many of the most appealing towns and cities, lies as much in the spaces between the buildings as in the buildings themselves.

By resisting the temptation to cram as many houses as possible onto the available land and adopting their golden rule of twelve houses to the acre, Letchworth’s architects, Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin allowed room for the organic intermingling of nature and architecture.

The buildings are buttressed by front and back gardens, the roads are lined with broad verges and trees, the town is criss-crossed with footpaths and patchworked with allotments and parks.

As Ebenezer Howard himself put it, “Parks and gardens, orchards and woods, are being planted in the midst of the busy life of the people, so that they can be enjoyed in the fullest measure.”

Letchworth and the other garden cities work as living, breathing urban communities because, as an Ebenezer Howard put it, they combine “the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country.”

This is the way most English people want to live.

We need to find a way to build places like this again.

So what has been holding us back?

I have only been planning minister for a few months but I have observed the debate about housing and planning for over ten years and I think I know what is wrong.

We are trapped in a vicious circle.

People look at the new housing estates that have been bolted on to their towns and villages in recent decades and observe that few of them are beautiful.

Indeed, not to put too fine a point on it, many of them are pig-ugly.

Like Harrisons Wharf in Purfleet that I visited last week.

I am sure the flats inside are nice enough but they occupy an overbearing and unbroken slab of dismal brickwork that is an insult to the community it borders, cutting it off from a stretch of the River Thames which, in Victorian times, attracted day-trippers from London keen to take a pleasant walk along banks of the river.

Since new housing estates are all too often soulless and formulaic, and those who will inhabit them will add to the pressure on local roads, primary school places and doctor’s appointments, existing residents oppose any proposal to build new houses on green field sites, even when the land is of low environmental quality.

Local authorities respond to the wishes of local voters by putting too few sites into their local plans. And this drives the cost of development land up to stratospheric levels (roughly £3 million an hectare in the South East and East of England by 2010.)

Developers respond by stuffing as many units as they can onto any site and, in an attempt to make the properties affordable, skimp on room size, architectural features, vernacular materials, communal spaces and landscape design.

In a nutshell, because we don’t build beautifully, people don’t let us build much. And because we don’t build much, we can’t afford to build beautifully.

The aim of the coalition, and my personal mission as planning minister, is to help us break out of this vicious circle once and for all.

We want to get back on to that confident, progressive path, which created Stamford, Edinburgh New Town and Letchworth.

We want to build beautiful and affordable places once again.

So what have we done to bring this about?

Eric Pickles’ first step, in June 2010, was to scrap John Prescott’s blanket density target of 30 dwellings per hectare and to stop the garden grabbing that was destroying the precious green spaces that make Britain’s cities so pleasant to live in.

The government then embarked on a root and branch reform of the planning system and the creation of the National Planning Policy Framework.

This was a mammoth task which had to be masterminded by a minister with a mammoth brain.

Fortunately, my predecessor, Greg Clark, is blessed with exactly that - as well as the unfailing patience and politeness required to bring the good ship Reform to dock with most of those interested in planning and development still on board.

The Planning Framework establishes a few clear principles, which it is now my job to drive through.

That local councils should take charge of development in their areas by drawing up local plans.

And that alongside the power to plan comes the responsibility to provide new houses to meet people’s aspirations.

Through their local plans, councils must bring forward enough land to meet the objectively assessed housing needs of their area over the next 5 years.

If they do so, they will be able to protect precious open spaces against speculative development.

And the Secretary of State and I will back them to the hilt.

But if they fail to take their responsibilities seriously, the presumption in favour of sustainable development will fill the vacuum and make the vital decisions that they are ducking.

Alongside the Framework, Grant Shapps introduced the New Homes Bonus, which gives local councils additional money for every new home for which they give planning permission.

And, in what I believe will turn out to be our most revolutionary step, the government launched neighbourhood planning through which villages, parishes and other neighbourhoods can take control of their future and decide for themselves how and where development should take place.

I will be talking more about our ambitions for neighbourhood plans after the Autumn Statement. So the government has acted to ensure that more land is brought forward for development and that local communities have an incentive to welcome new housing.

It is now for planners, architects and developers, large and small, to seize the opportunity we have created and start designing beautiful places, which local people will welcome.

Ten years ago, on the edge of Bishops Castle in Shropshire, Bob Tomlinson and Carole Salmon set out to create a new, contemporary village, a friendly place that people would want to live.

The result was The Wintles, 1 of the most exciting and enchanting collection of new houses anywhere in England.

The houses are all different.

They are unashamedly contemporary but incorporate vernacular features in a bold and imaginative way.

They use a wide range of both natural and manufactured materials and make a priority of the spaces between the buildings (both private and communal) and the planting of them.

The Wintles did not get everything right first time.

Which experiment ever does?

It is not as integrated into the rest of Bishops Castle as some long-standing residents would like. And, to replicate it on a large scale, one would need to find a way to build houses that are just as beautiful and just as sustainable but cost less to build.

But in Bishops Castle I believe that the Living Village Trust created a model for our future.

One of which Ebenezer Howard would be proud.

In which, once again, we build beautiful new urban landscapes full of affordable houses surrounded by green spaces.

This must be our goal.

Published 29 November 2012