A third more of the country needs to be developed and a halt has to be made to the construction of “pig ugly” modern housing, the planning minister, Nick Boles, has warned. The remarks will alarm defenders of the British countryside, but Boles insists this expansion is quite possible without building on protected greenbelt land.
Housing has now been identified across the government as possibly the single quickest route to boosting growth, as well as one of the greatest failures in policy for the past 20 years.
The government has announced successive ideas to boost housebuilding, but many of them are long term, or are being held back by complex financing rules. Some cabinet ministers are fighting for an increase in capital investment dedicated to housebuilding in the autumn statement next week.
Boles, seen as a social moderniser in the Tory party, has recently admitted that the government needs to focus rigidly on hard-edged economic issues.
On BBC2’s Newsnight, he says the “right to a home with a little bit of ground around it to bring your family up in” is a basic moral right on a par with a right to education. “We’re going to protect the greenbelt but if people want to have housing for their kids they have got to accept we need to build more on some open land. 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.”
Boles goes on: “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.
He says: “I think everyone has the right to live somewhere that is not just affordable but that is beautiful and has some green space nearby.” He calls this “a basic moral right, like healthcare and education. There’s a right to a home with a little bit of ground around it to bring your family up in.”
The problem has been modern housing, which he says is pig ugly. “Land is expensive but to some extent [developers] are just lazy. They didn’t talk to local people or get involved enough. But also it’s just bloody expensive to build because land is expensive.”
Addressing so-called nimbys, Boles says: “It’s my job to make the arguments to these people [people who oppose development] that if they carry on writing letters their kids are never going to get a place with a garden to bring up their grandkids. I accept we haven’t been able to persuade them. I think it would be easier if we could persuade them that the new development would be beautiful.”
Successive planning and housing ministers have called on developers to build more imaginatively, but with little success.
Boles, once a passionate advocate of localism as head of the Policy Exchange thinktank, is now presiding over a shift to a more centralised scheme by allowing developers to appeal to an unelected planning inspectorate if they believe local authorities are requiring them to insert too many affordable homes in their development plans. Legislation will be passed in 2013. In addition, the government is taking powers to fast-track thousands of big residential applications. Developers will be able to opt for their schemes to be put to the planning inspectorate instead of the local authority.
The inspectorate is also being given powers to awards costs against local authorities which wrongly turn down a development, even if the developer has made no appeal for costs.
Local authority planning departments will also be put in special measures if they are seen to be taking too long to make decisions or are subject to too many appeals.
Once the power has been passed to the planning inspectorate, and away from a local authority probably for as long as a year, there will be no appeal against a decision of the inspectorate.