“The peculiarities of places are to be obliterated by startlingly crude standardised criteria devised by infantile vandals in their think tank sandpit. A levelling is to be applied with disregard for specifics. This is not merely political swinishness. It is an aesthetic crime. The absolute disregard for genius loci is a triumph of philistine stupidity.”
One of the coarser ironies of the UK’s secession from the EU is that the government of all talents is rushing without thought or lecture to adopt a southern European tendency to build incontinently and inappropriately. This kind of construction is most evident on the coasts of Spain and Italy, where planning regulations exist, nominally, but are implemented by officials susceptible to backhanders and baksheesh.
Corruption by pot-de-vin occurs, too, in France, where the system suffers from the effects of Mitterrand-era decentralisation, which grants inordinate powers to local mayors to sanction changes of land use. This has proved fatal: building beneath friable sea dykes causes people to drown in their beds; building on potential landslips is equally irresponsible.
The UK can hardly claim that its own cumbersome planning processes are unsullied. For instance, in the 1990s the late architect Tony Rivers was told that he’d get permission for a shopping mall in a southern commuter town only if 15% of his fee went to a local architect who’d “see it through smoothly”.
Four years ago an unholy alliance of St Nicholas Hospital, a Christian alms house in Salisbury, and the Earl of Radnor’s Longford estate just outside the city announced plans to build 100 houses on a meadow beside a canalised branch of the River Avon. According to the Environment Agency’s flood map of Salisbury, the meadow does not flood.
The Salisbury Journal columnist Annie Riddle gamely published a photograph of the meadow. It showed a lake. The Barbour’d masses revolted. The planning application was withdrawn, although the thwarted developers’ PR operative, a delusionist with a promising political future, continued to insist that there was no flood. Under the new zoning system, another splendid gift from the impressive Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, he would get his way without a fight.
Such events are doubtless a British norm. There is an increased awareness that the back yard in Nimby is not mine alone. The more land that is sacrificed to infrastructural monoliths, to buildings, to aggregates, to tarmac and concrete, the more pervious will these watery isles become to floods, bursting dams and associated disasters, unnatural disasters, micro-Anthropocene disasters. The back yard with cars in trees, collapsed bridges, floating furniture and societal chaos belongs to everyone. It’s ours. Just as local knowledge is ours — not that it counts for anything.
The peculiarities of places are to be obliterated by startlingly crude standardised criteria devised by infantile vandals in their think tank sandpit. A levelling is to be applied with disregard for specifics. This is not merely political swinishness. It is an aesthetic crime. The absolute disregard for genius loci is a triumph of philistine stupidity.
If, the “thinking” goes, it’s good for a Cumbrian fell, then it’s obviously good for a Cambridgeshire fen. Not that fells and fens will be targeted; they are too far from the southeast, where uncontrolled development or “regeneration” will achieve a level of overcrowding and overheating yet unseen because, for the past seven decades, statutory regulations have struggled to prevent it.
This government of all talents will one day no longer be with us, reduced mercifully to dust. But its squalid legacy will remain. Not simply in boorish schemes and mediocre designs, but in ruined lives, in the RAF favelas, Brit bivouacs and bidonvilles that will grow up to accommodate the disenfranchised and unsheltered who can seldom reach even the first rung of the “housing ladder” — the very epithet reeks of the expectation of entitlement. They may have been born in Blyth and made in the Royal Navy and served their country selflessly, but the nearest they’ll get as veterans to that ladder is a sleeping bag beside a hot-air vent.
And, supposing they do grapple with it, they will very likely be looking at a windowless “home” of 20 square metres, which is about two-thirds the size prescribed by the Parker Morris committee nearly 60 years ago and adopted by both main parties in an era when not to build social housing was unthinkable. There existed a cross-party consensus favouring a sort of nationalised noblesse oblige. That consensus was destroyed by Margaret Thatcher. It was in the long term the most divisive of her many divisive acts. The right to buy was the right to buy votes and steal someone else’s hope.
It also signalled the capitulation of environmental dirigisme to the god of the market. The UK’s rules were both stricter and more rigorously applied than those of the southern European countries it now seeks to emulate. They were also applied in a different manner.
Because, for many decades from the 1860s onwards, the wealth in English (though not Scottish) cities tended to live outside those then reeking cities, they had no particular investment in them domestically. With the decline of heavy industry in town centres and the gradual gentrification of London from the 1960s onwards and, later, of the main English cities, things changed. Those cities became centripetal in the way that Paris and Madrid are. Class clearance freed up space for celebrity baristas and lifestyle-size influencers.
Laissez-faire planning was the sole form of planning, bridge fetishes excepted, that appealed to the former mayor of London. If a volume builder wants to do it, let it be — build away the blues: that evidently was the mayoral mantra. The volume builder knows his stuff and he is a very great contributor, a valued donor. Laissez-faire planning — you might call it no planning or sloth planning — is this government of talents’ speciality and is to be non-applied to everything, everywhere.
And what London thinks today, Manchester thinks tomorrow. Save that it won’t work like that. Giving free rein to volume builders is a route to uglification on the most astounding scale. These people are the barrow boys of the built environment. They are enemies of architecture. Indeed, they seldom employ architects: do they get treated by amateur dentists and Sunday oncologists? All that matters is the bottom line. The little people who will subsist in the valued donors’ creations don’t count. Indeed, they would do well to get littler still, to fit into their undesigned crates and hutches.
Jonathan Meades has written and performed in more than 50 television programmes on urbanism, architecture and topography. His next book, Pedro and Ricky Come Again, will be published next spring
Nimbys may have lost the battle of the back yard
When Nimby, an American acronym for “not in my back yard”, entered the British lexicon it quickly became shorthand for the tensions between selfishness and the public good, writes Nicholas Hellen.
Margaret Thatcher’s environment secretary, Nicholas Ridley, declared his support for a swathe of new towns: “Our English countryside is one of the most heavily manmade habitats in Europe. To make it into a green museum would be to belie its whole history.”
It swiftly emerged that he had objected to new homes near his Cotswolds rectory and was a Nimby too.
Now as Robert Jenrick, the housing minister, takes charge of Boris Johnson’s pledge to “Build, build, build”, Nimbys are once again in the crosshairs.
In the 30 or so years since, the population of the UK has grown by more than 10 million to 67.9 million.
This time round, the battles will not be confined to fields, hedgerows and herbaceous borders. Nor will Nimby remain code largely for white middle-aged Tory voters keen to preserve property values and to exclude people different from themselves.
Under Jenrick’s proposed planning reforms, land across England will be divided into three categories. New homes, schools, shops and offices would be automatically permitted in “growth” areas, and in urban and brownfield sites, known as “renewal” zones, plans would be given “permission in principle”.
The most affluent areas, often Tory-controlled, will be ordered to release the most land for housing, and local control over the rate of building will in effect be removed. Disused commercial premises can be turned into homes without the need for planning permission, creating fears that empty shops will become the slums of tomorrow.
New alliances are being created. Rich developers may pose as friends of the homeless, while wealthy homeowners make common cause with environmentalists. In the era of identity politics, we are all Nimbys now.