Nick Boles must combine planning with social justice, like the Victorian preservationists before him
Nik Darlington 10.26am
Nick Boles, the planning minister, would appear to have spent most of his time in office irritating conservationists, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph about his plans to concrete over England’s green and pleasant land with suburban semis.
The truth, as always, is more nuanced than that. As Mr Boles demonstrated when delivering last year’s Macmillan Lecture, he has an eye for the grand idea and an even keener eye for the headlines. There’s more than an element of the young politician on the make about him, wanting to ruffle feathers and knock heads, something Paul Goodman mentions over at ConHome.
It is a controversial tactic, not least on two subjects this country holds close to its heart: house prices and the countryside. We are obsessed with house prices, to the extent that subliminally we quite like a housing shortage, because it perpetuates the conversation about ever-rising house prices (in honeypots and catchment areas, of course). Even if on the surface we are (rightly) outraged by the tall task of getting on the property ladder.
Yet it is a visceral fear of verdant fields falling into greedy developers’ hands that most stirs our little (and big) platoons.
So we should be fearful. This country is genuinely world-class at fewer and fewer things these days, but one of them remains our intricate rural tapestry, formed by centuries of attentive husbandry and preserved by decades of largely sensitive planning policies (even allowing for the monstrosities in post-war town centres). Nowhere on Earth can lay claim to a miniature idyll so ravishing.
Nevertheless, Mr Boles is correct. We do need to build more houses; and it is not about property economics or wholly about conservationist aims (however important), it is about social justice.
That was the goal of Victorian social reformers such as Octavia Hill, who strove to move London’s workers out of their slums and into pretty suburban dwellings, with trees and clean air, served by the new transport arteries of the Underground. Those social reformers were among the first modern preservationists too. The likes of Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter founded the National Trust to preserve our heritage and rural splendour.
The story of the preservation of the view from Richmond Hill, for instance, in which the nascent National Trust played a small role, contains a poignant message about combining preservation and progress. The view was secured by an Act of Parliament only because nearly 200 hundred acres of protected common land was permitted to be illegally acquired for new suburban housing.
Those pioneering Victorian reformers believed in a compromise because it gave greater public access and allowed the building of extra homes for London’s mushrooming population. It also, for good measure, put the preservation of Richmond Hill beyond reasonable doubt.
Planning is a messy compromise. It always has been. Yet we have muddled along in the past and managed to maintain much of this country’s natural beauty. I do not doubt that Mr Boles’ intentions are in the right place, however he must follow this course in the footsteps of others with good intentions who have gone before him.
And he must tread carefully.
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