Democracy went to work on June 18th this year at Chesham and Amersham. The Conservative party lost a 16,000 majority to the Lib Dems. The overwhelming reason for voters’ dissatisfaction with the government was not muddled Covid restrictions, not inadequate response to the climate crisis, nor behaviour incompatible with leadership in public life. It was fear of a White Paper (WP) on planning reform that might loosen the protection from development of the sacred Green Belt. Middle England was in revolt.
The UK needs better, more intelligent, creative, sustainable, and reasonably priced housing. But where? Our villages, towns and cities are surrounded by green belts. If it is not built on already, it is most likely designated green belt. If it was built a long time ago, it is most probably a conservation area. New houses have to go somewhere. The centre of existing settlements is the most obvious and the White Paper acknowledges this in supporting ‘Renewal Areas’. It is the most sustainable but is in most cases small, slow, and more expensive to build, which does not suit the big national housing developers. Hurrah!! A chance for the small builders. But the planning system has become so laden with paperwork, uncertainty, risk and cost, that few can manage the challenge.
The WP fearfully calls for ‘gentle densification’. Why is it that our society and planning policy is so frightened of the word ‘density’? The essence of sentimentally though wisely admired historic towns and cities around the world is that they were built to high density. They were sustainable because they avoided the waste of precious land, were compact and hence facilitated timely movement, social defence, and community. Belgravia and Chelsea, without being high-rise, are denser than today’s master-planned ‘communities’. Density is too often – but should not be – confused with overcrowding or bad design. It is essential to sustainable settlements, large or small.
The WP proposes the return to ‘pattern book’ housing. The big house builders already have their standard house types. They are mostly mean, poorly planned, economically stripped bare and unsustainable. Major firms of architects and planning consultants are complicit in master plans that claim to be ‘placemaking’ and ‘sustainable’. The stuff of Pinocchio. The reality is boxes made of ticky-tacky, with bolt-on porches in the name of ‘traditional’ design, that seduces lay planning committees and officers untrained in design. For sales purposes, layouts are car-centric, providing more space for roads and parking than for people, play or nature. There are better schemes being designed and built, but they are regrettably few and far between. The Chesham and Amersham electorate were wise to react to being swamped with such detritus, but the planning system is failing all of us. The WP identifies much of what is wrong: the system is cumbersome, opaque, subjective, and unpredictable. Local Plans that take seven years to produce are longer than the life of a parliament and out of date by the time they are adopted. What the WP fails to admit is that decades of government cuts have starved local authorities of resources and expertise. The system is negative and broken – ‘policy says No’. Whatever Boris proclaims, it will take more than one parliament to fix. That ‘fix’ will be unpopular with voters, so the politics of re-election will overturn the necessity of reform.
The housing crisis needs more creative, lateral, and holistic thought. There are some short-, medium- and long-term solutions to ease the problem, one of which lies in the ‘use classes order’. C3 use is general residential use, C2 use (which includes seniors living with care) is lumped with C3 by most local authorities. The costs involved with delivering the amenities and bespoke accommodation of C2 use cannot compete with conventional C3 housing development. The government should give supportive direction to clarify the distinction. ARCO (Associated Retirement Community Operators) has been banging at the door of No.10 for years to recognise the importance of this distinction and the potential widespread benefits it could bring. There are presently 77,000 senior living apartments and cottages in the UK. By 2040, 25% of the UK population will be over 65 years old. We will need 3 million dwellings for the elderly by then. We need 250,000 in the next 8 years. That would free up 250,000 family homes. It is a proven statistic that retirement villages provide the beneficial release of family-sized houses to the market. One research paper estimates that there are 24 million unoccupied rooms in family houses in the UK. Rooms that are freed up to families when the elderly downsize by moving into bespoke senior living communities. The statistics for improved personal health and wellbeing are equally proven: residents living independently with care have happier and longer lives. The savings to the NHS, social care and in Doctors’ time and resources amount to billions of pounds sterling. Following the impact of Covid-19 such benefits would seem insane for the Treasury to overlook.
The developers / operators of senior living with care are way ahead of the big house bashers in the quality and sustainability of project design. Most are already building to carbon zero targets in advance of the 2030 milestone. Retirement villages are compact whilst providing essential out-door amenity space; they are designing to more sustainable densities. The amenity spaces of cafés, restaurants, small shops, gyms, swimming pools, meeting rooms, even village halls and allotments are increasingly open to the wider community and all encourage intergenerational activity. These developments can become a restorative hub for local neighbourhoods. Where town centre sites can be found, the simple fact of retirees living in the centre adds life, activity and spending power to the high street when compared to commuter dormitory housing. This is just one part of solving the housing crisis. There are other solutions, but democracy, planning reform and political re-election appear entwined in an unwinnable war.