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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Planning reform: a victory for conservationists, but beware the calm before the storm

Nik Darlington 11.03am

Some (moderately) good news! The Government published the final version of its new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) yesterday and it is a paramount improvement on earlier drafts.

What is more, the DCLG has managed to squeeze it in to even fewer pages (a mere 49 compared to 52), proving that as far as planning is concerned, size really isn’t everything.

The Telegraph is tickled pink. The newspaper’s 'Hands Off Our Land' campaign, which I have lauded on these pages before, provided a sustained and important outlet for opposition to the Government’s clumsy proposals last summer. The new NPPF, says the paper’s leader, “strikes a far healthier balance between development and the environment.”

Environment correspondent Geoffrey Lean hails the Telegraph readers who “refused to be fazed” during a seven-month “bloody battle” with a Government that “veered from amazement to anger”.

The Chancellor and Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, immediately announced: “No one should underestimate our determination to win this battle.” Meanwhile, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, called objectors “semi-hysterical”, the planning minister Greg Clark accused them of “nihilistic selfishness”, and his junior, Bob Neill, blamed “a carefully choreographed smear campaign by Left-wingers based within the national headquarters of pressure groups”.

In the Times (£), columnist Alice Thompson declares ”the circle has been squared” by the “genial” Greg Clark, the “Clark Kent of politics” who has “achieved the impossible” by reconciling the divergent interests of big property developers and conservationists. She closes by suggesting mischievously that Mr Clark should be considered for the Department of Health, to “see if he can also achieve the impossible there”.

Meanwhile Sir Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust and perhaps the single most vocal critic of the initial proposals, unsurprisingly devotes his Guardian column to declaring victory for conservationists over the “cowboy lobbyists”.

What last summer read like a builder’s manifesto has been replaced with proper planning guidance.

The builders’ lobby customarily seizes on housing shortage to argue for freeing the countryside for construction. But there is no shortage of land - only of land builders can most profitably develop, and that is rural land.

But Sir Simon warns that, of course, “the proof will be in the eating”. There are still fears for what even these vastly improved reforms could unleash if local authorities and communities, given only twelve months to get local plans together, cannot stand up to powerful developers. Localism is only a virtue if you have strong locals.

The Daily Mail is a lone dissenter among the leader columns:

…Those who stand to gain most are get-rich-quick developers…[and] the biggest losers will be the lovers of England’s countryside…

No amount of ministerial bluster can disguise the acute threat to the countryside - a heritage as precious as our language - contained in the order that there must be a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’.

I have written elsewhere why there is no such thing as sustainable development. And as Sir Simon Jenkins wrote last summer, “the only sustainable meadow is a meadow”.

But sustainable development will always be a woolly concept. We cannot truly determine sustainability in the present; that task is left to future generations. We make do with best guesses. Therein lies the risk. Yet such an existential risk would have existed whatever the Government had written down in its planning guidance.

As it happens, by making explicit recognition of the coalition’s updated sustainable development strategy, the wording is tighter and less open to abuse.

What other improvements are there in the final draft? I wrote for the Richmond Magazine last month that recognition of the “intrinsic character and beauty” of ordinary landscapes (i.e. the 55 per cent of the countryside not protected by National Parks and the like) would be crucial to any breakthrough.

That recognition has been restored, along with a brownfield-first policy, stronger protection for the Green Belt and playing fields, and the ‘default yes’ to development has been removed.

These are all revisions to be celebrated. Nonetheless, there are many challenges ahead. When he delivered the Budget last week, the Chancellor was very clear that whatever concessions were made in the final NPPF, development would still be easier, not harder. That remains true.

If localism is to have any worth whatsoever, then local communities need to work flat out in the coming months to be ready. The Daily Mail's negativity (or nihilism) goes too far, certainly. But this could well turn out to be the calm before the storm.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Coalition hasn’t killed the NHS, but its planning reforms could kill the countryside bit by bit

Nik Darlington 10.14am

In affectionate remembrance of English cricket, which died at the Oval on 29th August, 1882, deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances. RIP.

NB: The body will be cremated and the Ashes taken to Australia.

It probably wasn’t the first instance of an ironic elegy by an English newspaper, but the Sporting Times' obituary for English cricket is possibly the most famous.

The Mirror newspaper puts on its front page today a mock tomb stone mourning the NHS, “killed by the coalition” aged 64 (right).

Call me overly presumptive, but I don’t think it will follow the Sporting Times' cricket obituary into the history books.

And as English cricket did not truly die in 1882 (with England the pre-eminent team in the world today, the game is in rude health), the NHS did not truly die yesterday. Nor will it truly die when the Health & Social Care Bill receives Royal Assent, as it is due to do sometime before Easter.

The NHS will undergo some significant upheaval, of course, which makes previous promises of “non top-down reorganisation” look imprudent. And some people in the healthcare professions a bit upset (to put it mildly, which many others won’t).

But there will still be a National Health Service, free at the point of use, funded by general taxation. That founding philosophy is unchanged. And, thanks to the Conservative party’s commitment to increase health spending each year, the NHS will continue to receive the funding it needs at a time of increasing costs and demands for healthcare.

The Mirror and other excitable clods will look just a bit foolish when 2013 rolls in and the NHS is still alive and breathing.

Elsewhere though, another national institution of sorts, of a similar vintage, does have one foot in the grave.

As the Independent reports, the Chancellor is expected today to announce the publication of the re-drafted National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and “drive a bulldozer through decades of countryside protection”.

These represent the biggest changes to the planning system since it was set up by the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, and effectively change it from an instrument to protect the countryside into an instrument to foster economic growth.

I’m told by the National Trust that a more robust definition of “sustainable development” has made it in to the NPPF, following input from Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee. This, fingers crossed, should tighten up one of the woolliest, most incompetent elements of the original draft.

Nevertheless, the feeling is that there will be very few practical concessions on policy. For instance, George Osborne remains adamant that economic growth should be prioritised ahead of concerns about greenfield development.

And most worryingly, the Government is withholding protections for “ordinary” countryside (55 per cent of rural England), with only established biscuit-tin landscapes safeguarded by the new framework. Again, from the Indy:

In previous guidance…ordinary countryside was given an explicitly recognised value in making planning decisions, but in the new NPPF, this has simply been dropped.

"If this goes ahead, it will be the biggest and most harmful change to the planning system since it was established 65 years ago, and a huge threat to the countryside," said Kate Houghton, of the CPRE.

The new plans do hold out some hope for the ability of local activists to oppose unwanted and detrimental planning applications. But having just been involved in such a campaign in my local area, I know what a draining battle this can be when residents are pitted against resourceful developers. And local plans can be drawn up to counter excessive construction, but the vast majority of the country is plan-less.

Even if the health reforms open the door for a flurry of ultra-competitive independent healthcare providers and private investment (and gosh, what a shock that would be for the decades-old system of privately owned GP surgeries), the NHS will not die.

The politicians may have gone about these reforms maladroitly, but no politician is stupid enough truly to abolish what Lord Lawson once referred to as “the nearest thing we now have to an established church”.

However, the Government’s new planning framework truly could destroy parts of our countryside, bit by bit, in an ignorant dash for economic growth.

I shall not doltishly declare the countryside dead, because nature will, in its own immutable way, outlive us all. But the nation’s 65-year old planning laws have succeeded in setting aside space for nature to thrive, away from man’s malefic designs.

Yet nature cannot survive buried underneath a new warehouse, however strong its spirit. And once gone, it’s gone.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Progressive Conservatives should support a Land Value Tax

David Cowan 9.51am

In this year’s Macmillan Lecture, the Conservative MP Nick Boles proposed a series of ideas to improve Britain’s economic competitiveness. By far the most fascinating idea was a land value tax.

In the past it has usually been those on the socialistic Left and the libertarian Right who have advocated a land value tax (LVT). But Mr Boles is a prominent Conservative moderniser, founder of the Policy Exchange think tank, and known to be close to the party leadership.

The introduction of a LVT ought to be viewed as the most legitimate way to raise new revenue.

For too long, landowners and speculators have been able to reap sizeable economic outputs from rising land values, though contributing little economic input. One example being how the construction of the Jubilee line sent surrounding land values shooting up to £10 billion, to the benefit of landowners, while taxpayers still had to foot the bill.

The idea strikes to the heart of David Cameron’s vision of responsible capitalism:

“We need to reconnect the principles of risk, hard work, and success with reward”.

Another benefit of LVT is it would create a more stable and productive land market. There would be no benefit in owning land without utilising it since landowners would have to raise enough income to pay the LVT bill. The reduction in speculative activity would help drive down prices and rent, so ensuring that growth in the land market is based on sustainable and real returns instead of artificial and speculative booms.

LVT would also be a new ‘eco-tax’ that discourages construction on expensive ‘greenfield’ areas in favour of cheaper ‘brownfield sites’, so limiting urban sprawl. This brings the consequent benefits of reduced commuting distances and less costly road works, which contribute to CO2 emissions and atmospheric pollution.

However, Mr Boles’ LVT proposal should go a step further. Properties of all shapes and sizes are already overtaxed by the likes of council tax, business rates, stamp duty land tax, planning charges, and landfill tax. If these taxes were to remain then LVT would be burdening people with further unwelcome costs.

Instead, LVT should replace those property taxes - either entirely or at the very least mostly.

It would still raise sufficient revenue if pitched at the correct rate and included main homes, with exemptions for farmland, national parks, charities and pensioners’ main homes. The fact that LVT would also apply to land which at the moment is not taxed at all goes to show how it would raise more revenue than the current property taxes that place a heavy burden on ordinary homeowners.

This would be simple to implement since land cannot be hidden in an offshore tax haven and calculating the tax bill would be made easier by the fact that land values are already measured by the market, therefore compliance costs could be reduced. The same bureaucratic processes for collecting business rates could readily be translated to the collection of LVT.

The LVT would not harm enterprise. It would boost productivity, discourage urban sprawl, could replace the plethora of punitive property taxes, and would be relatively simple to administer and collect.

The extra revenue raised would be enough to fund a radical package of tax cuts to “put fuel into the tank of the British economy”, as George Osborne promised last year, and would reconnect the link between effort and reward by making sure everyone pays their fair share. This is very much a policy that ought to be part of any modern, progressive Conservative agenda.

Follow David on Twitter @david_cowan

Lib Dem MPs have time to mount assault on planning reforms but they must act fast

Nik Darlington 10.59am

The Independent has got its hands on a confidential Liberal Democrat report that describes the Coalition’s planning reforms as “unacceptable” and in need of radical revision.

The report was written by Annette Brooke, the Lib Dem MP for Mid Dorset and North Poole and co-chairman of the Lib Dem parliamentary committee on communities & local government. Particular criticism is aimed at the National Planning Policy Framework’s (NPPF) ‘presumption in favour of development’.

There is insufficient conformity throughout the document as to what sustainable development means… The language of sustainable development morphs into references to the importance of ‘sustainable economic growth’… The language of the document needs to be tightened up throughout to indicate that whilst economic growth is important it does not necessarily equate to sustainable development. 

This criticism of language goes to the heart of the problem that groups such as the National Trust, the CPRE, the Woodland Trust and the RSPB have with the draft NPPF, which is expected to be finalised in February. Nobody can reasonably oppose new housebuilding in toto. However, when more than one million housing plots are available on brownfield sites, it is reasonable to argue about where these houses should be built.

The Government is affording protection to existing National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The Prime Minister has also given assurances that the Green Belt will not - to paraphrase a former Labour Deputy PM - be built on.

Yet serious concerns remain. The vagueness of the new planning guidance, particularly the notion of ‘sustainable development’, means these protections are not as clearcut as Ministers might claim. A leading barrister has claimed that the NPPF could make the Green Belt more vulnerable and even National Parks could be at risk.

As MP for a large town and precious surrounding countryside, Annette Brooke will understand keenly the importance of sound planning to prevent unsightly urban sprawl. Dorset remains one of Britain’s jewels because its conurbations are relatively compact, with swathes of unadulterated countryside in between. Even motorways don’t deign to intrude on Thomas Hardy’s domain.

However, another flaw in the NPPF puts the cherished Dorset landscape under threat. This is that local authorities must have local plans in place in order to supersede the framework. According to CPRE Dorset, only Poole and West Dorset have local plans in place. Nationwide, only around half of councils have these plans. Where plans don’t exist, the default answer to a planning proposal should be ‘yes’, according to the NPPF.

The Government’s planning reforms have purportedly been put together to answer the question posed by the country’s housing shortage. In reality, it is an attempt to engineer a massive construction programme into a growth strategy that is struggling to produce results in the prevailing chilly economic climate.

The Coalition’s junior partners are variously described to have too little or too much influence on Government policy. Whichever side of that fence you stand, their’s is a chequered record. For instance, the student finance reforms were fudged to the tragic detriment of students and institutions to save Lib Dem face. On the other hand, the healthcare reforms were decidedly improved by their interventions in the Commons and the Lords. Lifting lower paid workers out of income tax is one of the Coalition’s best policies, whereas the AV referendum was one of its biggest wastes of money.

Here is an opportunity for Nick Clegg’s party to make another positive impact on Coalition policy. It is no secret that many Conservative MPs and some Ministers are angry - not only with the NPPF itself but how it has been presented. The war of words between Ministers and opponents such as the National Trust has been at times unsavoury and unbecoming.

If Liberal Democrat MPs mount a serious assault on the planning reforms - and they only have until next month - they will have a willing audience in Parliament and in the country.

The ghosts of Keynes and Brown are alive and well in Her Majesty’s Treasury

David Cowan 6.00am

The dust has settled on the Autumn Statement.
George Osborne has stuck to his original spending plans but abandoned his 2014-15 target for eliminating the structural budget deficit.
Instead there will be further 0.9 per cent cuts in real terms to current expenditure during 2015-16 and 2016-17. Over the seven year period public expenditure will fall by 16.2 per cent in real terms.
This means that during the Conservatives will be going to the country in 2015 with the pledge to cut an extra £116 billion over two years.

These are dangerous and unpredictable times. It is especially worrying when the OBR’s gloomy forecasts are based on the optimistic assumption that the Eurozone will survive its sovereign debt crisis.
The two year extension of the deficit reduction plan is also based on the complacent assumption that the Conservatives will still be in power in 2015. George Osborne should have refuted this complacent attitude and repositioned his fiscal policy in a credible manner, as by the 2012 Budget we could be living in a very different world without the Euro and the onset of another global recession, if not a depression.
 
A more credible fiscal policy would have been a reaffirmation of the commitment to eliminate structural budget deficit by 2014-15 by announcing some preliminary spending reductions which would go towards paying back the debt, such as scrapping the £34 billion ‘white elephant’ High Speed Rail 2 project (something Nik has blogged repeatedly about on these pages) and stop the £113 million going to trade unions every year (see Craig here), but then also say that further detailed spending reductions would be announced in the 2012 Budget with explicit aim of implementing the £216 billion cuts before 2015-16.
This course of action would allow new spending plans to be formulated in response to developments in the Eurozone. There is a need for further spending reductions if the coalition is going to put Britain back on track, keep borrowing costs and long term interest rates low, and maintain our perceived safe haven status.
 
However, George Osborne’s plan can only work if the economy starts growing again. The Autumn Statement was an opportunity for radical action but instead we got a ‘Brownite’ flurry of statistics and a plethora of small initiatives for ‘credit easing’, the Regional Growth Fund, and a ‘youth contract’.  All of which amounts to well over £10 billion at a time when we are adding another £145 billion to the national debt.
These schemes will waste taxpayers’ money on new bureaucracies and inefficiently re-allocate resources towards unproductive sectors of the economy. George Osborne has weighted his growth strategy too heavily towards a Keynesian style stimulus based on state intervention and cheap credit. He needs to bring the focus back towards supply side reform.
 
There are seeds of hope with the delay of the 3p increase in fuel duty, the aim to integrate the operation of income tax and national insurance contributions, the consultation on abolishing national pay bargaining, public sector pension reform, the liberalisation of employment legislation, and a more flexible planning system.
However, George Osborne could have been more radical. Indeed it would not be going so far as to say that it is essential for the future of the British economy that the Chancellor pursues this route instead of issuing headline grabbing micro-initiatives.
The ghosts of Keynes and Brown are well and truly alive in Her Majesty’s Treasury.
Follow David on Twitter @david_cowan

Growing Pains

Nik Darlington 8.15am

The Chancellor, George Osborne, will use a speech to the Conservative party conference hall today to announce, amongst other policies (an Osborne speech isn’t an Osborne speech without a few tricks up those sleeves) a further freeze on Council Tax until 2013.

Mr Osborne is also being prompted from all sides - stage right and left - to reformulate a strategy for growth.

His predecessor at No.11, Alistair Darling, wrote in the Independent on Sunday that the Chancellor is “not daft” and will be acutely aware, to use a nautical analogy of which the sailing lover Darling would approve, of the need to change tack. It won’t, of course, be presented as a “Plan B”; but no less a plan must be set out today.

The Labour party, Ed Balls in particular, has been playing on growth for some tome. Over the weekend, a pointed piece of advice has come from within the Conservative ranks. The Chairman of the powerful Treasury Select Committee, the usually discreetAndrew Tyrie, has insisted that growth plans are not working. He also attacked the ring-fencing of budgets such as healthcare and international development. The MP for Chichester is not alone on his party’s benches in being critical of the Government’s strategy. The mostly youthful grouping of Tory MPs dubbed as the “New Right” are demanding tax cuts to boost spending power of individuals and businesses. Described as economically and socially liberal - and ferociously ambitious - the “New Right” is drawn largely from the 2010 intake and includes historian Kwasi Kwarteng and Matt Hancock, a former (some might say current) advisor to Mr Osborne.

And this morning, the new director of the Institute for Directors, Simon Walker, was doing the round of TV & radio studios calling for a more explicit growth strategy, tax cuts, and a massive outlay on infrastructure such as roads and railways - a “ring-fenced” outlay, perhaps a more veiled criticism of ring-fencing other areas of spending.

Much has been made of the potential growth impact of High Speed Rail. The Government is also banking on a housing boom to stimulate economic activity in a nation reliant on its construction and property sectors, hence the acrimonious efforts to reform planning policy.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister and Paymaster General, mentioned both yesterday in a provocative interview to the IoS. Notwithstanding the curiosity of appearing to disown the ‘big society’ having only 6 months ago been arguably its most articulate advocate after the Prime Minister, Mr Maude went on a loose diatribe against opponents of HS2 and the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in its present incarnation.

The National Trust (membership approaching 5 million) and other preservationist campaigners such as the CPRE and Woodland Trust are peddling “bollocks”, according to Maude. It is just the latest in a plethora if ill-advised inflammatory comments from Government ministers. The PM has offered a more conciliatory tone but he is being advised that the Tories’ political positioning will benefit from fisticuffs with the forces of darkness that are the National Trust, Jonathan Dimbleby and Bill Bryson.

And opponents of High Speed Rail are opponents of growth. A long thin island like Britain has to have it, he says.

As I write this on my way to catching a train to Manchester, I can’t say I’d be that bit more excited in the knowledge I’d reach my destination a few minutes quicker (and probably for a much higher price). I can’t say either that being in transit is stopping me from thinking purposefully and getting my work done.

On nearly every currently available basis, HS2 is promising to be a weaker option than alternatives, such as upgrading the West Coast Mainline. High Speed Rail to Edinburgh is a different matter, as it might genuinely dissuade people from flying to Scotland, but that is decades off.

And the planning shakeup is even worse. Ministers have bought into a development lobby fudge that the planning system is inhibiting growth, when limited access to credit, slack consumer demand and developers’ intransigence (greenfield gives higher profits) are the immediate barriers.

A more encouraging move is that announced yesterday by Grant Shapps, the housing minister - the Government will make available state-owned land for 100,000 houses on a “build now, pay later” scheme.

But if this Government really wants to stoke the economic furnace and provide infrastructure this country desperately needs, it should be looking seriously at Boris Johnson’s idea for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary. Instead, ministers appear to view it with an air of amused disdain.

Britain needs more airport capacity and fast. An extra runway at Heathrow ought to be entirely off the table, whatever its owners seem to be hoping. Stanstead and Gatwick are unviable for expansion for environmental and logistical reasons.

A new airport in the Thames would cost as much perhaps as £50 billion but the effect on economic activity in those relatively depressed areas of Kent and Essex east of London, and beyond, would be immense. The environmental impact would be a concern but the least bad amongst the various trade-offs available and almost certainly preferable to the damage that would be caused by carving HS2 across the middle of England.

It would send out a message of a measure of ambition. If Mr Osborne wants an infrastructure driven dash for growth, he should fly east.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Britain must choose higher urban density instead of suburban sprawl

Stuart Baldock 6.03am

Demographers estimate that the UK population will increase to approximately 75 million by 2051. If this is true, the increase equals the population of two cities the size of London.

Therefore the UK is going to have to build many more houses. Even if demographers have over-calculated, life expectancy is increasing and there more households with single occupancy - both factors increase the demand for housing.

There is also the pressing need to enable first time buyers (FTBs) to get onto the property ladder. The typical FTB is now looking at having to pay over £150,000 for their first property - in London the average is more than £250,000. The average age for a FTB is now 35, and in London it is 43. This is partly a result of the lack of affordable credit, but the lack of suitable housing stock is critical.

The UK will soon be forced to answer the question nobody wants to confront: Are we favour of higher urban density or suburban sprawl?

The NIMBY argument that the UK is already developed enough is not one any political party can afford to entertain. Only 10 per cent of the UK is actually developed and this figure includes garden land - there is plenty of space to build more houses should we want to expand suburbs.

However, our preference ought emphatically to be in favour of higher-density development. Higher-density urban areas are more environmentally sustainable than suburban areas in the medium to long term (something that Nik wrote about recently). Whilst this assertion may seem counter intuitive, it is a popular misconception that because a suburban area is aesthetically ‘green’ - with grass, open spaces, trees etc - it is environmentally sustainable. The diametric opposite is true.

Compare emissions of climate altering greenhouse gases. As noted in a UN Population Fund paper published in 2009 “low-density suburban development is 2.0-2.5 times more energy and greenhouse gas intensive than high-density urban core development on a per capita basis”.

The typical Londoner produces in an average year only a little over half the UK average per capita of CO2. The per capita CO2 emissions of a London resident are approximately 6.18 tons - the UK average is approximately 11 tons.

This impressive statistic could be better still and the results emulated by other UK cities. It could be achieved by abandoning the very British fascination with suburbs and embracing high-rise / high-density city centre living such as has taken place on the continent.

The reason the average London resident produces less CO2 than the UK average is due to the proximity of their house to their place of work. Reduced travel distance = reduced CO2 emissions. Even suburban trains and metro’s emit CO2, a 5 mile journey by train emits 0.4kg of CO2 per person. The ultimate goal of urban development should be to make cities as compact as possible with as many people as possible living within walking or cycling distance to work. Not only will this have positive environmental benefits – it will have positive health benefits. An advantage urban dwellers have over their suburban counterparts is significantly lower rates of obesity and associated diseases.

It is true that the UK has not a comfortable history with high-rise / high-density developments. Many of the post-WW2 experiments in municipal housing have blighted the views of entire generations to high-rise living. Perhaps the most infamous example is the Aylesbury Estate in South-East London. It was described by the press in the 1980s and 1990s as “Hell’s Waiting Room”.

Other high-rise estates around the country have had similarly bad reputations. Many became known as areas of high crime, social depravation and depressive environments. Therefore it probably came as a shock to many residents and Ladbrooke Grove locals when in 1998, the Department of Culture Media and Sport, gave Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower a Grade-II* listing. This was due to the building being an early example of the ‘New Brutalist’ school of architecture.

We should not let past mistakes cloud our judgement about the kind of city we need to build for the future. It should not be beyond the skills of architects to design buildings in which people today want to reside. It may though necessitate some rather draconian restrictions on building in the urban fringe, as well as some imaginative use of Section 106 agreements to get developers to construct mixed use high-density buildings.

Follow Stuart on Twitter @stuartbaldock