Through the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s successive Labour and Tory Governments proudly jostled with each other over who had built the most houses. Reflecting the public mood and ambition.
So what has happened since, such that the public psyche is now to regard new housing as a pollutant to be viewed in the same way as a waste tip or an opencast, rather than a social good?Most right-minded people accept the need for new houses, so why such a furore when a Council or developer wants to provide much-needed new family homes.
Churchill said, “in history lies all the secrets of statecraft”, so I tracked down the 1945 and 1967 Town Plans for Newcastle. What did I learn?
The first lesson was that neither Chief Planner Parr (1945) nor Chief Planner Burns (1967) were short of confidence. Urban remodelling, infrastructure projects and urban extensions held no fear. Both men articulated Newcastle as an economic powerhouse which required a radical plan to address a changing economy.
The second lesson was that both plans “got done”. The 1945 plan proposed two city centre university campuses, a western bypass, a central motorway, slum clearances, plus numerous housing and industrial estates. All ticked off.
The 1967 plan proposed a shopping centre around Eldon Square, a new civic centre, pedestrianisation of Northumberland Street, more slum clearances and family housing at, interalia, West Denton and Kingston Park. Again all ticked off.
Fast-forward to today and what a difference.
Newcastle has built 11650 less houses than needed and planned for since 1991. Bridging NewcastleGateshead planned to redevelop thousands of houses. In reality only 3000 obsolete homes were demolished and only 348 new homes were built despite £360m of funding.
One unwelcome feature of the old plans was the approach to consultation. More about telling people rather than responding to their views. Messrs Parr and Burns applied a “top down” approach believing planners had a professional duty to provide that most basic human right – a good home. They recognised that a city which doesn’t build homes for its working families will age and die. Good housing is, after all, a key determinant of happiness and prosperity. But building lots of new housing is very difficult. Even Chief Planner Burns said in 1967 that housing planners must expect, “a constant spate of ill informed comment” The Local Government Association confirmed recently that public opposition is the biggest barrier to building new homes.
In today’s ‘localism’ world it seems as though we sometimes just ask what people want and then accede. Recent decisions in North Tyneside emphasise that a purely localist approach will make it difficult to deliver the houses needed to address our housing crisis. Often the debate focuses on greenfield versus brownfield. With 90,000 homeless in the region the reality is we need both urban regeneration and new mixed use garden suburbs. Perhaps we need to look outside the region for additional guidance. There are two particularly useful sources.
In 2006 the EU funded OECD told us that “Newcastle’s rural area presents the liberty to conduct spatial planning, particularly in the handling of housing issues”. Then last month the Newcastle City Council Corporate Peer Challenge led by the LGA told us that “establishing a vision for the future of housing in Newcastle is necessary and will require tremendous strength of leadership”.
So back to the unpopularity of new housing. Two things are certain. Newcastle/Gateshead is a fantastic place to live and work. Secondly the Council’s planners are doing a great job pushing forward their plans. As the Core Strategy is finalised over the coming months, history tells us that good city planning should be accompanied by a healthy dollop of ambition.