BBC Newsnight on Wednesday last week got off to a slightly odd start when the new planning minister Nick Boles embarked on a whistle-stop tour of England in order to argue about freeing up more land in order to build more houses.
It was odd because the argument he presented chiefly focused on the concept of making new developments more pleasing to look at, thereby justifying a return to a time when open land was freely developed in order to cope with population growth.
Titled ‘On Bricks and Beauty’ Boles took to the road with Newsnight presenter Allegra Stratton in order to highlight the best and worst of the UK house building sector.
Boles was filmed standing in a field, reminding viewers of a time when all kinds of villages were build on land like this and explained how people needed to shake off the idea that the only beautiful landscapes were natural ones.
Then Boles was shown standing on a bridge explaining that the town of Stamford used to be fields before some people came along and built Stamford on it, apparently with some success.
Finally Boles was stood in Purfleet in Essex, gesturing towards a wall of newly developed houses and lambasted them for not fitting in with the local setting.
While there are worse ways your home can end up on the television – murder scene investigation, paedophile witch hunt, nightmarish storm ripping off your roof, etc – seeing an elected representative stood outside calling it “pig-ugly” probably stings a bit.
In fairness, they were pretty ugly. It’s not a massive surprise to hear the Design Council awarded these specific flats a minus one rating – althought the Design Council probably did it with slightly more subtlty than Boles did.
To his credit, Boles made some reasonable points. No one likes seeing monotonous slabs of bricks-and-mortar dropped right in the middle of their view and it can’t hurt to see the planning minister trying to get some sort of debate started about possible solutions, particularly if he is also promising the Green Belt will remain untouched.
This doesn’t necessarily make it a very practical argument though.
In the same Newsnight item there was also a short interview with Cambridge University professor of architecture Alan Short. He recounted his memories of encounters with house builders and how unwilling they were to take on risk via innovation, in his experience.
Innovation is fine (although considerably more difficult from an valuation point of view) but the blunt truth of it is that ‘innovative’ is very rarely the same as affordable.
The ‘pig-ugly’ flats in Essex already cost upwards of £150,000. If, as Boles notes, people are already an average age of 33 before they purchase their first home, are aesthetics the most important thing to be worrying about right now?
The segment finished with a fairly lacklustre debate back in the studio. The aesthetics points is quickly lost to the urgency of just needing more houses built in the UK. At a time when the Government would be lucky to hit even near 50 per cent of its own building targets, it is hard not to agree with Boles’ point that there is a “crying need” to build on both green and brownfield land to address an escalating problem.