One of the National Trust’s fiercest critics in the debate over the NPPF has been Colin Wiles, a housing consultant based in Cambridge. His latest blog, ‘Crying Wolf in the Countryside’ is the latest in a series of attacks on our work on the planning reforms.
Since the blog seeks to undermine the National Trust’s entire Planning For People campaign, it merits a reply. We are happy to provide one.
Colin was reacting to the new report, ‘Inexpensive Progress?’, commissioned from Vivid Economics by the National Trust, CPRE and RSPB. He thinks the report is contradictory, since it maintains that planning reform will not lead to growth in the short term, whereas the Trust has been arguing all along that the NPPF will lead to ‘sprawl’ and overdevelopment.
It’s worth pointing out that the report is entirely independently produced, has been peer reviewed by an academic of considerable standing, and raises questions about green belt and other aspects that do not necessarily chime perfectly with everything the Trust thinks.
That aside, we feel strongly that the Trust’s position need not in fact be a contradiction. We maintain that the NPPF as drafted is more likely than the present system to lead to bad developments in the wrong places. Our argument has therefore been one about the distribution of new development, rather than one about the overall amount of development. Growth is good – but not at the expense of the environments we value the most.
Anyway I won’t cover every aspect of Colin’s argument against us. But one aspect stood out particularly for me. He declares that the National Trust is ‘clueless’ when it comes to housing pressures.
Octavia Hill’s legacy
This surprised me. As Colin well knows, we were founded by Octavia Hill, one of the earliest champions of social housing. (We were delighted indeed to note that Colin’s own website features a photograph of a plaque commemorating Octavia’s birth and her role as ‘one of the founders of the National Trust’).
Like Colin, we celebrate Octavia’s life and achievements – particularly in this, the centenary year of her death in 1912. Octavia was a passionate campaigner for decent homes, and much else besides. She was also a champion of open spaces, at a time when rampant urbanisation in the absence of any planning restrictions whatsoever was threatening green lungs such as Hampstead Heath, Wimbledon Common and Epping Forest.
We’ll be doing plenty of things in 2012 to celebrate Octavia’s life and work, not least our Octavia Hill awards for environmental and community campaigners, and a partnership with Demos to explore the public policy issues that Octavia was most concerned about from a 21st century perspective.
Our own houses
The National Trust, it is true, was established more as an open spaces organisation than as defender of buildings. Yet our 1907 Act makes explicit reference to our role in protecting ‘tenements (including buildings)’. We are not a social housing charity – but housing is nevertheless a hugely important part of what we do.
We own property throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland including 57 villages. We are also a major landlord with over 2000 tenants. We sometimes act as a housing developer too. Over the last ten years we have built or obtained consent for over 900 homes to be sold on a commercial basis on our land. These contribute to the provision of housing and the delivery of high quality sustainable homes and the profit from these sales help support our broader conservation work. Stamford Brook is the most well-known example, and featured in a publication we co-produced called Volume – delivering sustainable housing (PDF/2MB).
Housing AND open spaces
Octavia Hill did not see a contradiction in championing decent housing as well as in protecting vital open spaces – and nor do we. Indeed, for Octavia open spaces were an essential complement to houses, providing ‘open air living rooms’ for ordinary working people. It is to Octavia indeed that we owe the term ‘Green Belt’ – it was used in her (thwarted) campaign to save Swiss Cottage Fields from development in 1875.
To dismiss the National Trust as ‘clueless’ on housing is therefore simply wrong. We are not a housing charity, it is true, but issues about the future of the landscape go to the heart of our cause. We fully accept that more homes are needed, and the job of local authorities is to plan for these. Good planning in a strategic sense takes time and energy. Given the scale of housing need that faces us, provision of new homes will involve new building on green field sites – we have never denied this. Local plans need to promote new housing schemes, but in ways that ensure the delivery of sustainable development and protect the ‘spirit of place’ that resides in our towns and villages. What is so unreasonable about that?
One final point. Colin claims at the end of his article that building the three million homes that will be needed over and above the existing urban footprint is likely to consume ‘only’ 1.3 per cent of the unprotected countryside. We’d hardly notice, in other words. Funnily enough, the road network in this country takes up a similarly small proportion, 2.2 per cent of our land mass. So adding half as many roads again overnight would go largely unnoticed? If such a degree of development is now needed to prevent the crisis that Colin predicts, I hope we have a planning system that is strong enough to mitigate its worst excesses.
Ben Cowell, National Trust Assistant Director of External Affairs