The building design czar has stated that England’s green belt cannot remain completely untouched indefinitely.
According to the government’s building design expert, not all green areas should be left untouched forever. He cautioned that due to high housing costs, young people with lower incomes are unable to afford homes, leading to a growing urgency to increase housing supply.
Nicholas Boys Smith, a former Tory adviser appointed by Michael Gove to run the Office for Place, which will advise on planning for new communities, said not all of the green belt “of low or no agricultural or amenity quality” should be protected for ever.
Constructing on the protected natural areas is a contentious issue in politics and has caused opposition among Conservative party members who are concerned about potential loss of electoral support due to potential harm to green spaces.
On December 19th, Gove, the government official in charge of promoting equality, improving housing, and supporting communities, announced that local authorities will no longer be required to revise green belt boundaries in order to meet housing goals. However, they must be able to provide a valid reason for deviating from the estimated housing need.
Boys Smith is not advocating for mass development on the anti-sprawl buffers but said: “We have not built enough over the last five, 10, 15, 20 or 30 years. As a society we have fallen out of love with the future and we have … under both political parties failed to build enough homes.
“We must examine the quality of land within green belts and determine what should be conserved.”
During the 1990s, Boys Smith served as a consultant for welfare policy to the Conservative social security secretary, Peter Lilley. In 2006, he also provided advice to George Osborne, who was the shadow chancellor at the time, on tax matters. In addition to his consulting work, Smith has also worked as a consultant for McKinsey and as an investment banker. In 2012, he founded the urbanism thinktank Create Streets.
He criticizes the failure of planning over the past few decades, stating that a large portion of constructed structures are disliked by the general public. He also argues that efforts to reduce regulations in planning have actually hindered development due to the uncertainty surrounding what is permissible for construction.
He believes that community-led design codes would establish a precise framework for determining acceptable standards and improve public satisfaction with construction projects.
During community events and online consultations, he stated that when showing images of potential streets and houses, there is usually a significant 70 to 90% agreement on most matters.
Previously, King Charles, when he was the Prince of Wales, advocated for this type of planning consultation in order to establish design codes. He did so through his organization, the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment.
Boys Smith agrees with the king’s belief that traditional urban design is the ideal model for new housing developments. He advocates for the incorporation of more streets and squares lined with traditional style homes and large apartment buildings, utilizing a restricted selection of materials and designs.
It seems that he has also convinced the leaders of the Labour party. In October, Keir Starmer declared that a Labour government would construct new towns using updated design standards to expedite the process. Reporters were informed that Labour was interested in incorporating “Georgian-style” townhouses.
In July, Gove launched the Office for Place, which is responsible for creating design codes for various areas. These codes aim to streamline the planning process for millions of new homes by offering a quicker path for builders who adhere to them.
Smith expressed his disapproval of increased development of large housing projects that simply add cul-de-sacs to open fields. He believes that codes should be created in collaboration with the community and local government to allow the public to have a say in what is considered appealing and reject what is deemed unattractive.
Twenty-five municipalities have created regulations, including one for 900 residences in Cheshunt, located in Hertfordshire. In the neighboring county of Buckinghamshire, the Conservative party faced a defeat in the 2021 byelection in Chesham and Amersham, with some accusing them of promoting excessive construction of homes.
According to Boys Smith, utilizing codes could speed up the process of constructing houses by enabling developers to bypass the current planning regulations, resulting in quicker and less risky building.
Although there were 178,000 newly constructed homes in England last year, the highest number since 1989, this fell short of the estimated annual requirement of over 300,000.
Smith also mentioned that in the northern region, it is important to rekindle our affection for numerous town centers that have been depleted over the past 6-7 decades.
He suggested that policymakers should focus on promoting Grimsby, Halifax, Rochdale, and Sunderland as desirable locations for living, working, starting businesses, and raising families.
He stated that individuals possess a strong understanding of their surroundings, even if they are not fully aware of it.
When you display images of your idea of the ideal house, a vast majority will ultimately choose the option that feels and appears more familiar.
The method poses a difficulty for the primary home construction companies, and Boys Smith acknowledged, “I often feel discouraged when I encounter new development.”
He stated, “There may be a disadvantage for housebuilders as it will likely be more challenging to construct identical houses in Cumbria compared to Cornwall.”
“The house you build in Yorkshire does need to feel like it’s in Yorkshire. That may create more cost. I would argue it’s creating more value as well.”
He stated that individuals enjoy observing a diversity of patterns and textures, as well as materials with a local feel, along with a suitable ratio between the street’s height and width. This results in a more compact housing structure that creates a stronger sense of location.
“I recall a poignant discussion with a woman of West Indian descent in Tottenham, where she expressed her desire for a place with a sense of community,” he shared. “Even a colonel in Hampshire may echo this sentiment.”
The Home Builders Federation stated that builders are eager to collaborate with local authorities in developing projects that honor the local style, while also considering the importance of making sure they are financially feasible to carry out.
Boys Smith denied that his approach may have a better chance of success because it aligns with principles of urbanism that have long been espoused by the king.
However, he stated, “I believe the sentiments expressed by the king or the Prince of Wales regarding placemaking are correct and can be proven to be so. In fact, this viewpoint is now widely embraced by both Guardian and Telegraph readers.”
Nicholas Boys Smith’s preferred locations … and a few he strongly dislikes.
In Shaftesbury, Wiltshire, there is a famous location known as Gold Hill. This location was featured in a 1973 Hovis advertisement directed by Ridley Scott, which depicted a boy pushing a bike. However, the hill is now considered impossibly steep to build upon.
When asking individuals about their preferred streets, the most common response is typically a winding road on a hill. This is due to the graceful shape of the curve and the picturesque scenery it offers. It is truly a beautiful location.
Utrecht in the Netherlands – “It’s the town that has had the most dramatic effect on me. It’s beautiful. Street trees everywhere. Very safe.
“Despite having experience cycling in London and other locations, the feeling of freedom while biking in Utrecht and other Dutch cities is truly transformative. You have complete security and the ability to explore anywhere.”
“The city is just the right size, with a compact layout that allows for quick transitions from the bustling city center to the peaceful suburbs and countryside.”
What is the one he dislikes the most?
“The train station in Swindon and the Walkie-Talkie skyscraper in London are both extremely unattractive structures.”