Andrew Motion, the president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, has launched a scathing attack on the “incredibly irresponsible” planning minister leading the charge to build on England’s green fields.
The former poet laureate describes feeling emotions “somewhere between horror and enormous anger” as Tory minister Nick Boles set out his plans to build on 2m acres of unspoiled land.
In an unusually personal attack on the credibility of a new minister, Motion further castigates Boles for bringing an inappropriately “abrasive and irksome” attitude to the job on being promoted in the prime minister’s last reshuffle.
The outspoken intervention comes in response to the minister’s claims that land under development in the UK may have to increase by a third to tackle the housing shortage.
Boles, a former head of the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange, warned on BBC2’s Newsnight programme that, while he would seek to protect the green belt, large areas of “open land” may have to be given over for housing.
The minister told the programme: “In the UK and England at the moment we’ve got about 9% of land developed. All we need to do is build on another 2-3% of land and we’ll have solved a housing problem.” He added: “The built environment can be more beautiful than nature, and we shouldn’t obsess about the fact that the only landscapes that are beautiful are open – sometimes buildings are better.”
But , in an interview with the Observer, Motion condemns the minister’s comments, describing him as wrong “on just about every level”.
Motion, who succeeded writer Bill Bryson as head of the CPRE this year, says the minister’s short-term fix will condemn greenfield sites to being lost for ever, degrading the “national masterpiece” that is this country’s countryside. He further claims that the minister is simply mistaken in his figures.
Speaking days before the chancellor’s autumn statement, in which further tinkering to planning laws and possible funding for house building could be announced, Motion said: “Nick Boles has clearly spent a lot of his life in thinktanks. And he has the kind of attitude you imagine went down quite well in a thinktank. Slightly abrasive, irksome, ruffling feathers.
“But to talk so blithely about these issues where so many people’s lives and so much of our land is at stake is just incredibly irresponsible.
“On just about every level what he said was wrong. Start at the level of fact: he said 9% of our countryside is bricked over; by CPRE reckoning it is actually already more like 12%. And that doesn’t take into account the collateral effects of development. About 50% of our land is already compromised in some way or other.”
Boles claimed last week that building on open land was unavoidable as people had a moral “right to a home with a little bit of ground around it to bring your family up in”.
The government concedes that the UK is in the grip of a housing crisis with the number of households expected to expand at the rate of 230,000 a year, creating a demand for housing that the current stock cannot fulfil.
But Motion publicly lambasts the minister, whose father was once head of the National Trust, for being out of touch and failing to understand what may be lost by bringing in the bulldozers.
He instead suggests that more could be done to develop brownfield sites.
Motion says: “The underlying problem is this idea that in a difficult economic time you can just lighten the burden of planning regulation as a kind of short-term fix.
“That is not how it works. Once you develop a piece of land it is gone for ever as countryside. Clearly there are issues around housing, but clearly also not nearly enough is being done to develop brownfield sites.
“And we know what will happen if this goes through: builders will slap up new estates in the most desirable places; they will snap up prime land in addition to the vast tracts of undeveloped land they own already.”
A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “The government has repeatedly made clear that our reforms safeguard the countryside and the new framework maintains previous protections for green belt and countryside, including areas of outstanding natural beauty. It also puts power back into the hands of local people, ensuring they are in charge of deciding the areas they wish to see developed and those to be protected. The green belt provides the vital green lung against urban sprawl and local plans must have clear regard to this policy in the national framework.”
After looking again at the figures Boles assumption of 2-3% is not that unrealistic if one accepts a number of policys, those being
-A time horizon of 20 years and building to meet in full the backlog in housing need that has built up – which I dont think is practical other than with a large publicly funded housing programme as well as private building
-A density range of 30-40 DPH – suburban densities.
Of course if you did not accept the premise of suburban densities and aimed for an average of around 50DPH and much higher around transport nodes and corridors you could reduce the rate of urbanisation to well under 2%.
Of course we need to take Brownfield First more seriously but mathematically its not the major component of change if we release enough land where there is few brownfield sites and major housing need (most of the country to be frank). The debate need to move on, brownfield first only works as a tool to reduce loss of greenfields (in absolute terms) if housebuilding overall is low, if housebuilding rises then it can reduce the rate of increase of loss but not the absolute level of loss. The real major component of change is the density to which we build sites – whether we accept urban sprawl or a smart growth solution- especially on greenfiled sites where most new housing sites in most of nthe country will inevitably some from. The real issue is whether we accpet a Cornwall size loss (which out in that way would be politically unacceptable) or that of a much smaller county. By the way I think both % increases and county size losses are a bad way of visualising the issue – more on that in a future post.