Why we should build more houses in the countryside, not fewer

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The Independent Online
TOWN MOUSE has won the day. In his capacity as head of the Government's taskforce on planning policy, Lord Rogers of Riverside, the architect of the Millennium Dome, has appealed for an urban renaissance to reverse the flood of 1,700 people who are leaving our cities every week to set up home in the countryside.

In future we will have to be more like those urbane continentals and live in compact, boldly designed apartment blocks in our inner cities. Greenfield building sites will be taxed, owners of derelict land in our inner cities forced to hand it over to developers. Rather than sipping warm beer on the village green, in our New Jerusalem we are all going to be drinking chardonnay sur la terrasse.

I wouldn't for a moment doubt Lord Rogers's commitment to urban living. The man is to air- conditioning ducts what Wordsworth was to daffodils. It is just that there is something that makes me feel a little uneasy about this Government- sponsored fetish for high-rise living. It couldn't possibly have anything to do, could it, with the fact that angry rural voters are threatening revolt over the number of new homes projected to be built in the shires? The truth is that the Government has taken the soft option: rather than face the green welly brigade on the streets of London again, it has reckoned that it can keep them at bay by building two-thirds of the 4.4 million new homes to be completed by 2016 on "recycled urban land". What the "urban renaissance" will really mean in practice is that thousands more little apartment blocks will be crammed on to the poisonous acres of the old gasworks at Wanstead, more tiny little houses squeezed into the old railway sidings at Hither Green. Of course we need to learn to love our inner cities again. But that doesn't mean we can duck the fact that over the next 17 years hundreds of thousands of families are going to need decent homes with decent gardens in decent surroundings - many of them in the countryside. Unless we allow those houses to be built, we are going to end up with slums once more.

What is truly rotten about the British mentality these days is not so much our aversion to urban life as the way in which we quiver with fear at the mere mention of the words "housing development". The slightest suggestion that a new house is going to be built within sight of our own has us firing off letters to the council, getting up petitions and, in one or two cases in Essex, reaching for the home-made explosives manual. It is a sorry state of affairs when a group of villagers can be elevated into public heroes for stopping some houses being built, but that is exactly what happened to the doughty folk of Kingsland in Herefordshire last week. Faced with the prospect of 13 houses being built on a field across the lane from their own homes, they launched a public appeal, which was supported by the Prince of Wales and the Bishop of Hereford. Enough grannies raided their piggy banks to allow the people of Kingsland to outbid the developers and preserve the field as a field. Now they will be able to continue to enjoy their views of hill and dale uninterrupted by - horror of horrors - anything as ugly as a house.

How very touching and very English. Or at least it would be were it not for one unfortunate fact: what the people of Kingsland have really done is to deprive 13 families of the chance to bring up their children in the environment which they themselves enjoy. If the 13 houses cannot be built in Kingsland, they will have to be built somewhere else. And that somewhere will very likely be on a cramped, unsuitable brownfield site already rejected by commerce and industry.

If the Government were to try to return to meat or bread rationing there would be an outcry. Yet house-rationing seems to be accepted without a whimper. When it comes to housing, governments of both political persuasions since the war have resorted to centralist planning in the name of protecting the good old English countryside. Every few years they give each county a "housing quota" - a certain number of new homes it expects that county to allow to be built within its boundaries by a certain date. No more, no less. Never mind whether people actually want to live in Merseyside, on Merseyside they will jolly well have to live.

It is rather like the Soviet bureaucrats of old sitting at their desks in Moscow and deciding exactly how many pairs of shoes will be required by the inhabitants of Vladivostok over the next five years. The result has been to create a scarcity of houses in popular areas, fuelling house price inflation and depriving millions of the chance to live in the conditions in which they would like to live. The system of allocating housing quotas county by county is an indirect attack on the living standards of all us - and yet some of the strongest supporters of centralist planning turn out to be all those Tories of the shires who on any other issue are screaming the virtues of the free market.

It wouldn't be so bad if centralist planning had helped to save the countryside, but it hasn't. Quite the contrary: it has helped to damage it. What happens when a county is given its housing quota is this: the voters balk at the number of houses to be built, forcing planners to think of where they can put all the houses with the minimum political fuss. They find a couple of disused airfields or a redundant factory site and work out a cosy arrangement with the volume house builders.

The result is incredibly destructive: what we end up with is a cancerous growth of nasty little houses with fake beams, pocket handkerchief gardens - a dismal, mass-produced nowheresville which has the virtues of neither country nor town. Selected corners of the countryside are completely desecrated in order to help preserve the rest in aspic.

But it doesn't need to be this way. We should stop worrying about the quantity of houses being built and concentrate on their quality instead. The best areas of landscapes should of course be preserved, but do we really need to protect the highly subsidised prairie fields which make up most of the English lowlands? It would be far better, economically as well as aesthetically, if housing quotas were abolished and individuals were much freer to indulge in their architectural fantasies, subject perhaps to veto by a responsible local "jury" represented by all walks of life, not just planners.

After all, the things we all admire about the countryside are developments which would be all but impossible to push through the current, centralist planning system. Blenheim? Doesn't fit the social housing quota. Clovelly? Reject: houses don't have the required number of parking spaces. Chatsworth? Not in the appropriate style for the area - try resubmitting plans in the style of a large barn conversion.