This land is your land

Land surveyorsWe are used to thinking of NIMBYism as a parameter of the housing policy debate. The survey evidence suggests that anti-development sentiment is deep rooted and hard to shift. It is a constraint that we must work within – something to work around – rather than something to be challenged.

It is increasingly clear that NIMBYism is taken as a brute fact within the political sphere. Last month we heard that, despite apparent earlier enthusiasm, the Conservatives have gone cold on the idea of a new generation of new towns. Eric Pickles is reported to have poured cold water on the proposals because of the fears over the likely electoral cost to the Conservatives in constituencies in the rural South East. And today the Telegraph reports that Nick Boles has been told to mind his language over “aggressive planning talk”. His pro-development – and pro-developer – stance is upsetting the forces of conservatism.

In this context I was particularly struck by a passage in John Grindrod’s Concretopia. It is located in the chapter focusing on the development of Harlow as one of the satellite new towns around London. It is worth quoting in full (pp47-48):

Harlow was to be 6,400 acres in size, and in 1946 consisted of four villages, containing a total of 4,000 people. A large house, Mark Hall manor, stood in the northeast corner of the designated area and the development corporation had an eye on its land. Godfrey Arkwright, the landowner, wrote to Eric Adams, a member of the corporation, about vacating the area where his family had lived for 130 years for the sake of the new town. “It is a very, very sad moment for me … I’ve got criticisms about the new town, but I admit the necessity for these satellites.’ Despite his attachment to the house and the area where he’d grown up, Arkwright was loath to stand in the way of progress. ‘I hope that we can remain friends’, he wrote.

ariel_new_town_midMark Hall went on to be one of the first areas of Harlow new town to be developed. It includes Britain’s first point block, the Lawns, which is clearly visible on the left of the image.

Of course, Arkwright may well have been distinctive even in the 1940s in the altruism of his sentiment. Certainly the development of the new towns did not proceed without contestation by existing residents and land owners. But I find it very hard to imagine many contemporary land owners making quite such as public-spirited accommodation. Particularly when compensation was at existing use value.

But we are going to have to foster a wider acceptance of the social significance – indeed necessity – of further development.  This view needs to be held more broadly if we are going to make much progress in dealing with the country’s housing supply problem.

And it means that not everyone who has is going to be able to hold on to what they’ve got.

Image: (i) © kalpis – Fotolia.com (ii) Mark Hall North, via National Education Network.

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  1. It will be profoundly depressing if we have to give up on the idea of building on greenbelt land. To me, that is the key solution to solving the housing crisis around London. I have recently visited three areas of greenbelt inside the M25 (Hadley Wood in Enfield, Dagenham East and Bexley/Bexleyheath). I have taken photos at each location of empty greenbelt land that is not being used for any purpose. This land would be ideal for building terraced and semi-detached houses with gardens, the sort of properties that people would actually like to live in, instead of the rabbit hutch flats now being built. The areas I have visited are all within 30 to 35 minutes of the City of London by train. Moreover, prices in Dagenham East and Bexley/Bexleyheath are surprisingly low. Our politicians, however, instead of trying to persuade the public that we should make use of parts of the greenbelt for building much needed housing, continue to pursue the idea of garden towns. This is a complete chimera, however, as they know such towns will never be able to overcome local opposition. Also, even if new garden towns were built, just think of the costly long-distance commuting they would involve.

    I have come to the conclusion that we will not solve our housing problems until the public can be persuaded to accept that parts of the greenbelt must be built on. That looks like being never. Meanwhile, I look forward to the continued appreciation of the value of my flat in central London!