A tram in Freiburg
After a series of events last week, the realisation dawned on me that many emotive debates are grounded in concerns about infrastructure: responding to a question at the CIH Eastern conference about so-called 'NIMBYs' blocking housing development; listening to a debate on immigration on the Moral Maze; and being asked about the accuracy of CPRE’s claim that there is enough brownfield land to build one million plus homes in England.
As I explained to Mark Easton at the CIH conference, most (but not all) NIMBYs object to housing because they are already dealing with strains on infrastructure in their area: queues for doctors' surgeries; a lack of school places, and traffic congestion to name a few.
Because of the way a lot of housing is built - incrementally, without the necessary infrastructure being delivered alongside it - people associate more housing with yet more people using the already limited pool of infrastructure.
However, if we pursued a placemaking agenda, rather than miring ourselves in debates about housing numbers, this would placate a significant proportion of NIMBYS, as we would begin to associate new development with the delivery of tangible community benefits such as schools, doctors' surgeries, and transport infrastructure.
As Zrinka Bralo, Chief Executive of Migrants Organise pointed out on this week’s Moral Maze immigration debate, most people in Britain do not have a fundamental objection to immigrants. What they object to is the perceived impact more people will have on a system of infrastructure that is already under severe pressure.
As with NIMBYs and more housing, the common perception is that more immigrants will mean more traffic, longer waits for doctors, and fewer school places. Rather than getting caught up in an emotive debate amount what a fair number of immigrants to take is, governments should be allaying these fears by taking a different approach to housebuilding that as a matter of course delivers infrastructure in tandem with new houses – as they do in Germany for example. This may change public perception of the capacity of England to accept immigrants, as many would like to.
Infrastructure is the rub when it comes to the latest CPRE report too. While it is interesting that we could physically fit one million plus homes on brownfield land in England, the report does not give due regard to the kinds of places this would result in.
As with many debates - despite the fact that it doesn’t grab the headlines - infrastructure is the dynamo behind any meaningful discussion of brownfield
Does the million plus figure take account of all of the physical social and infrastructure needed to make any development – brownfield or otherwise - a desirable place to live? Does the figure take account of whether these sites are in areas where demand for housing is high? Without bearing in mind these questions of placemaking, of which space for infrastructure is a fundamental part, the CPRE figure feels more like a ‘how many people can you fit in a mini’ type fact, rather than something around which housing policy should be based.
'One million plus' harks back to the notion that if we change one aspect of the environment, people’s lives will improve. In the 1960s this manifested itself in the idea that building sleek new high rise buildings would liberate people from cramped urban squalor thus making their lives better. This approach infamously did not take account of the fact that people need to live near jobs, transport, green space and all of the things that are not ‘nice to haves’ but are fundamental to sustainable urban and rural living.
Similarly, the fact that we can ‘fit’ a lot of houses on brownfield land is only half an argument. Converting brownfield land into something that improves people’s lives requires taking more things into consideration than housing numbers: how will we remediate brown field sites so that these million+ homes are habitable? Are these sites accessible?
From an economic perspective, brownfield capacity is not concentrated in locations with the highest levels of housing need. In our response to the consultation on changes to national planning policy, the Institute made the point that many brownfield sites are so poorly located that their development would generate high volumes of car traffic and long commutes. As with many debates - despite the fact that it doesn’t grab the headlines - infrastructure is the dynamo behind any meaningful discussion of brownfield.
The RTPI has argued this week that we need to move the housing/land discussion away from single issue solutions. Brownfield land has a role to play, but if we are to achieve government housing targets we will need to consider a smorgasbord of types land for development: brownfield, green field, and green belt.
But bringing land forward is not enough, if we want real community buy in on housing - and a range of other similarly sensitive issues - we need to show that we have plans to provide the necessary infrastructure to deal with more growth.