Britain needs more houses, and the government’s highly unpopular draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) at least asks how to get them — the right question even if it gives the wrong answer. Anyone who deals with the planning system knows how overblown it has become, and that the cost and effort can exhaust a developer, to the extent that the good intentions of a scheme drain away at the crucial moment of building. The existing planning system may be imperfect but, if it is to be simplified, it needs to be better at eliminating bad designs, not the reverse.
Prodigious amounts of brain power and energy have been devoted to making the well-intentioned suet pudding that is the planning system of today. Brains and energy could be applied to burning off the fat and revealing the plums but the effort might still be in vain. According to Ben Pentreath of Working Group, one of the country’s few aesthetically reliable sources of designs for developers’ housing, there is insufficient market demand for quality (be it traditional or modern in style) to justify an extra 10 per cent or so margin of cost, even if there were sufficient agreement as to what quality consists of.
This truth in itself constitutes a national tragedy, or perhaps it should be described as a black farce. Pentreath compares the situation to food supplies. Whatever the objections to battery-farmed chickens, the market for organic and free range is unlikely to rise above 5 per cent of the total. The problem with housing and other forms of development is that mistakes last for such a long time.
The interwar housing problem was eased by private enterprise, in the form of semi-detached houses, lavishly using up land that was unfettered by controls.