Housing, Octavia Hill and the NPPF

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.

Economic contradiction?

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?

Urban footprint

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

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6 thoughts on “Housing, Octavia Hill and the NPPF

  1. Thanks for the response, Ben. Yes I’m a slight fan of Octavia Hill and the Wisbech property is a real delight (not sure if it’s yours, I know Peckover House across the road is). But I’m puzzled by your comment that building 3 million homes beyond the urban footprint would need half as many roads again as we have now. I’ve assumed a conservative estimate of 35 homes to the hectare which includes residential roads – this would hardly add half as many roads since since we have 22 million homes in England already. I think “only” 1.3% of unprotected countryside (which is 46% of England’s area) is a small price to pay to restore a balanced housing market and provide decent homes for the millions who need them over the next twenty years. As a point of principle, do you accept that we will need to build 5 million homes over this period? The NT has never owned up to this question. If your answer is yes, where do you propose that they go? If not, how do you propose to manage the growing demand and need for new homes?

  2. A fair response here.

    I’m a bit sceptical that all the National Trust housing ‘expertise’ plays much role in your NPPF campaign though.

    If it does, why does all your NPPF material seem to come from your external affairs team and press team (not the place organisational policy expertise is usually located)?

    Why is a large share of your research and publicity material drawn from CPRE (in fact even the last ‘we’re getting serious’ Inexpensive Progress report was co-sponsored by CPRE)?

    And why are the main NT spokespeople on this issue (Simon Jenkins and Fiona Reynolds) both people with much closer links to
    CPRE than anyone else at the National Trust?

    A more sceptical reader would suggest that you have a Director who has a campaigners instinct, prior experience of defeating government on planning (on the same issue, in the late 1980s when at CPRE) and the insight that it’s a great way to get publicity – who happens to have a sympathetic Chairman and is ready to run with it, come what may.

    The ‘we know a lot about housing’ defence seems a post hoc justification for the campaign stance, not its primary motivator.

  3. The National Trust have had my membership for seventeen years but now as I watch my nephews and nieces and children unable to even dream of one day owning or even renting their own home I have come to see the NT for what it is. You claim to preserve the heritage of the UK but you in fact protect elitism in home ownership. If a person is lucky enough to have access to a car they can spend an expensive day at one of your properties being shown around what they can never hope to aspire to – a home and good living standards. The National Trust isn’t what I would call a charity and it certainly doesn’t improve the UK for the better.

  4. Ben actually you are right, the NT isn’t clueless on housing. I accept that you manage some houses, large and small, and that you act as a housing developer, including the development of a 200 home exclusive gated estate (sustainable development?) in the green belt at Cliveden, against local opposition (sorry, couldn’t resist!) – what I should have said is that you are “clueless on housing numbers” – i.e. the big picture/national needs and demand and the overall housing market.

    I’m completely with you on open spaces but Octavia;s principal concern was to provide open spaces for people who lived in the cities. That is why your brownfield first policy is so misguided. By cramming development onto every piece of brownfield land, without considering the option of open space/urban food production, it makes our cities even more hemmed in and unpleasant.

  5. Pingback: What if Octavia Hill had succeeded in getting a Green Belt declared in 1875? « Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

  6. Pingback: Octavia Hill cries wolf? | Red Brick

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