Barry Wood: In Britain the numbers opting to build a home is way behind other countries. But not in Cherwell.

Over ten years we are providing 1,900 new homes for Oxfordshire. They will be a wide range of properties. That is because we believe in choice.

Cllr Barry Wood is the Leader of Cherwell District Council.

Much has been rightly said recently about housing authorities stepping up to the plate in helping the Government provide 300,000 additional homes every year.

One area of housing provision that cries out for intervention is facilitating those who want to build their own home or customise a shell to their own requirements. I accept that this is not our national tradition, but it is time to think hard about being brave and innovative and to dispel the misunderstanding that this route to ownership is in the “too difficult box”. For too long the proportion of self-building here has lagged far behind other nations.

For Conservative councillors there is a particular opportunity to lead and help provide people with a real choice in buying the house they always wanted to have. The standard delivery models of the big five builders are not for everyone.

At a former army depot in Bicester, Oxfordshire, a brownfield site is now the largest self-build and custom-build housing project in the country. Over a ten year span 1,900 such houses is the ambition and the sales of “golden brick plots” are selling in phases on target.

How this has come to pass has its own controversies around “what is the role of a Council interfering in the market.” But Conservative-run Cherwell has taken the view that helping folk have a choice is a worthy objective, albeit as you would expect with close and proper risk management.

What did we do then?

The Council purchased the site from the Ministry of Defence after it was zoned for mixed use development in the Local Plan. This was not cheap, the Section 106 commitments are substantive.

We then set up an arms-length development company which is a hundred per cent owned by the Council. We long ago changed from being a stock holding authority so this step was essential. The concept is that the company will be profitable but not super profitable. The return on investment for the shareholder is good, and there are exit strategies if the concept falters. I don’t think it will, but safe takes preference over sorry.

The company has a marketing suite in the town centre. It is called the “Plot Shop”. Purchasers are sold a “plot passport” and a “golden brick”. The former gives access to quick and easy planning permission delivered under a Permitted Development Order and the latter gives a serviced foundation slab of the requisite size.

The passport also sets out limitations on height and distance from the road edge and purchasers are time limited on how long they can take, to avoid others living in a building site environment for an unreasonable duration. To date most self builders have chosen standard appearances and materials. However, many people (circa 60 per cent) choose some form of offsite manufacture, rather than a brick on brick approach.  It de-risks the process and gives certainty on cost, while having many of the advantages of traditional self build. Another myth dispelled.

There is a complete range of sizes including apartments and terraces. The obvious and first question visitors to the project ask is “how much is a completed house then, is it cheaper than a standard house elsewhere in the housing market area?” The answer, also interestingly, is that they can be £20,000 to £30,000 cheaper but that actually the self-builders add bells and whistles of their own design that bring them up to average prices. You pays your money and makes your own choices.

If other councils would like a full briefing on our journey to date, don’t hesitate to ask.

What the Americans can teach us about local democracy

It should be easier to call local referendums in the UK. Politics is too important to be left to the politicians.

On Tuesday we saw Americans in 37 states vote on a total of 157 “propositions” or “initiatives”. These are referendums on an array of issues. Some are significant – others symbolic or of little consequence. Often there are highly controversial or emotive issues that make it onto the ballot paper. There are other decisions which sound, to an outsider at least, rather tedious and mundane.

Let us take California. This year Californians had 11 different propositions to vote on. (One can see how the queues get rather long when there is a high turnout.) In order to get something put to the vote a petition is needed with a sufficient number of signatures. The tally must come to at least five per cent of the number who voted in the last election for Governor. So that might be around 600,000. Some of us have fond memories of Howard Jarvis’s  Proposition 13 which was passed in 1978 and cut property taxes in California by 57 per cent. (Rather equivalent to the “Proposition 13” in Wandsworth the previous month when the Conservatives gained control of the Council from Labour in the local elections.)

Tax is still a subject which crops up – although generally Californians are less keen on cutting it than they were. This year we had Proposition 5 on the ballot, which I’m sorry to see did not pass. The “California Association of Realtors” (what the Americans call estate agents) had helped gather up the signatures. It proposed allowing pensioners wishing to downsize to pay the same level of property tax. Usually moving involves an increase in property tax as it is based on the amount you paid when you bought the house. So if someone wants to move – perhaps due to disability or to be nearer their relatives – they are penalised. That would also free up the housing market and increase the supply available for others. “Exactly,” responded the critics claimed these “realtors” would benefit from extra commissions. I’m sure they would have – but so what if the change would be of wider benefit? Anyway no point in rerunning the Proposition 5 campaign. I feel it is important to accept the result of a referendum.

Californians also voted against extending rent controls, to increase the amount of space farmers must provide for their hens and pigs, and to allow private sector emergency ambulance employees to be required to remain on-call during work breaks. They voted against cutting fuel tax and to end Daylight Saving Time.

The Vox website reports that among votes elsewhere, Massachusetts saw backing for “transgender rights” – effectively that men who identify as women can use the women’s lavatories and vice versa. Here are some of the other decisions:

“Alabama and West Virginia voters passed measures that cease to recognize and protect a woman’s right to have an abortion, while Oregonians rejected a measure to ban public funding for the procedure. But unless the Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade, the restrictions protecting the sanctity of life remain symbolic, since they’re not decided at the state level.

“Florida passed the historic Amendment 4, which will allow up to 1.4 million ex-felons to regain their voting rights. Maryland, Nevada, and Michigan are hoping to enact laws that allow same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration, or both, while Arkansas and North Carolina wish for voter restrictions by issuing changes on voter ID laws.

“Arkansas and Missouri both voted to increase the minimum wage, which will give raises to a combined total of 900,000 workers in the two states. And several states voted on whether to expand the legalization of marijuana: Michigan fully legalized marijuana, while Utah and Missouri voted to legalize medical marijuana, and North Dakota rejected a measure to legalize marijuana.”

Americans for Tax Reform, headed by Grover Norquist, notched up a victory in North Carolina:

“In the Tar Heel State, voters have lowered North Carolina’s constitutional income tax cap, currently set at ten per cent, to seven per cent. Voters passed the Income Tax Cap Amendment with more than 57 per cent of voters approving of the measure.

“The state’s income tax rate stands at 5.499 per cent and is scheduled to drop to 5.25 per cent on January 1, 2019. Governor Roy Cooper and the North Carolina Democratic Party came out against the measure, even though the reduced income tax cap of seven per cent would still permit a more than 33 per cent state income tax increase.”

Voters in Washington, Missouri and Utah rejected various proposals for energy and fuel taxes.

The scale of all this popular decision making is pretty extraordinary. The debate about the respective merits of direct democracy and representative democracy has been with us for a long time – the ancient Greeks agonised about it as do the Americans today. I am not suggesting we should go anywhere near as far as the United States. There would, for instance, be no point having a referendum to legalise cannabis in Enfield – as Enfield Council would not have the power to carry out such an instruction from its residents. In any case it would seem an unlikely idea to decide a matter on such a local basis. Would not the junkies from Broxbourne, Barnet, Haringey and Waltham Forest be encouraged to move in. One of my favourite films, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, is an anti referendum classic.

Yet I would suggest that we should take a few cautious steps in the American direction. Brexit should not only mean more decision-making in the House of Commons but also some powers being passed down to town halls. The existing power to bring in (or remove) the system of a directly elected Mayor offers a chance to shake things up when they are working badly. The effective veto on excessive Council Tax due to the requirement to hold a referendum has worked well – although allowing increases of twice the inflation rate before this kicks in is too lenient. There should also be the power to challenge Council Tax levels that are already extortionate. As with California, it is right that the requirement for signatures on a petition should be pretty onerous. But if such a hurdle is met then residents should be able to trigger a petition to cut the level Council Tax.

What about a referendum on weekly bin collections? Or a planning policy that would ban new tower blocks? The petition threshold is a safeguard against too many issues being put forward – or of them being too frivolous or too complicated and obscure to be understood.

I am familiar with the retort that if people don’t like what their councillors are doing they should vote them out. Should the alternatives not appear much better they can stand themselves. Certainly that is the fundamental remedy. But in much of the country it is not working. Our local politics is ossified. Membership of political parties fluctuates a bit, but is on a long term downward trend. Low calibre councillors are seldom deselected – and so can drift on for years in safe wards claiming allowances. Cynicism has eroded the public service ethos and so good people are discouraged from taking part.

In short, politics has become too important to be left to the politicians. Making it easier to hold a referendum would invigorate the system. Inevitably council leaders will not like having constraints put on their power – especially the amount of our money that they can spend. Rather than undermining council elections, interest and participation would be enhanced. Perhaps some of those motivated to get involved by campaigning on a single local issue might then broaden their interest and become local councillors.

William Shawcross: May and Brokenshire must not let Scruton be hounded from his post

His long career evinces both a real understanding of issues such as antisemitism and a philospher’s willingness to change his mind.

William Shawcross is a former head of the Charity Commission and and official biographer of the Queen MOther.

When Sir Roger Scruton was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2016, the official announcement said he was “often described as Britain’s foremost philosopher”. He is that and much more.

His knighthood was for “services to philosophy, teaching and public education”. It could just as well have been for his courageous work during the 1980s, when he travelled repeatedly – and at considerable risk – to communist Central Europe, forging links with dissident academics and students in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.

For those activities, he was in June 1985 detained, expelled from Czechoslovakia, and placed on the communist government’s “Index of Undesirable Persons” – a badge of honour that saw him feted by Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic after the fall of Communism.

Yesterday a little-known blog and a few tweeters – including, alas, a couple of Labour MPs who should have known better – tried to place him on their own “index of undesirable persons”. Their reasons for doing so were feeble and their evidence scant. But it seems to be mainly because of a speech that he gave in Hungary in 2016, the same year as his knighthood.

The key passage – which is being selectively quoted – is as follows:

“Many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish, and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire. People in these networks include many who are rightly suspicious of nationalism, regard nationalism as the major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe in the 20th Century, and do not distinguish nationalism from the kind of national loyalty that I have defended in this talk. Moreover, as the world knows, indigenous anti-Semitism still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics, and presents an obstacle to the emergence of a shared national loyalty among ethnic Hungarians and Jews.”

For this, he is accused of being someone who “peddles anti-Semitic conspiracy theories”. His accusers demand that the Prime Minister and James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government who on Saturday appointed him to lead the new Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, drop him. That would be grossly wrong.

The hunt is now on, it seems, to find incriminating remarks in his life’s work. He is the author of more than 50 books on philosophy, politics, the arts and more. He has written thousands of essays and articles and given countless interviews (including those in which he has recanted previously asserted beliefs). For example, one article published yesterday afternoon accused him of “controversial comments” about Islamophobia and homosexuality. These former comments are worth quoting:

“Muslims in our society are often victims of prejudice, abuse, and assault, and this is a distressing situation that the law strives to remedy. But when people invent a phobia to explain all criticism of Islam, it is not that kind of abuse that they have in mind. They wish to hide the truth, to shout ‘lies!’ in the face of criticism, and to silence any attempt at discussion. In my view, however, it is time to bring the truth into the open.”

Some may disagree with these views, but must Sir Roger be silenced for holding them? He seems to be alert to the problem of anti-Muslim hatred, but sceptical about the definition of Islamophobia. That may irritate some, but if philosophers cannot think, write and speak freely, what is the point of them?

Similarly, on homophobia, it is clear that he has revised his views. As he told The Guardian in 2010, referring to an earlier essay about homophobia, “I wouldn’t stand by what I said then.” People’s views – especially if they are philosophers, one hopes – change over time and this is perfectly normal. It is also worth noting that his appointment by the Government relates to the design and style of buildings, a fact which risks getting lost in a blizzard of confected outrage.

Three things are worth adding on the subject of antisemitism – and quickly, because as the saying goes, “falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it”.

First, I have known Sir Roger for many years and do not believe for a moment that he has an antisemitic bone in his body. Indeed, as the final sentence of the above quotation demonstrates, he is acutely aware of the problem of antisemitism in Hungary. Moreover, as his autobiography movingly explains, he is of German-Jewish ancestry himself.

Secondly, Sir Roger is not guilty by association simply for having travelled to Hungary and for knowing Viktor Orban. The facts are that he helped Orban and others set up an independent law school, the Jogusz-Szakkollegium, in the days of communism. He lectured in the school, as part of his mission to encourage young people to work for the liberation of their countries. The school played a significant role in the collapse of the regime.

Another overlooked fact: Sir Roger also personally lobbied Orban’s government not to close down the Central European University in Budapest, founded by Soros. He is not uncritical of Orban and, like many people in the UK, approves of some his policies and disapproves of others.

The third and final point. Antisemitism is a serious problem in countries like Hungary – but also in supposedly more enlightened places like our own, particularly these days on the left of politics. It is a virus that mutates from generation to generation, and must be dealt with vigorously wherever it emerges. No one should accuse anyone else of antisemitism frivolously or for mere political gain. It is a very serious charge and in this case it is entirely without merit.

Judy Terry: More new homes could be built in Suffolk is the bureaucracy was hacked back

Here is one firm’s account of how unnecessary costs and delay in the planning system holds them back. Timescales promised by councils are not honoured.

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Building around a thousand new homes across East Anglia each year, Hopkins Homes is a thriving Suffolk-based housebuilder which prides itself on its no compromise approach to design and build quality.

Hopkins Homes delivers a substantial number of houses to meet the region’s housing shortage, yet each property continues to be sympathetically designed to reflect the architecture and character of the local area whilst still offering the convenience and energy efficiency expected of a new build home.

“There is no doubting the need to build new houses to help solve the country’s housing crisis. However, we believe that housebuilders have a responsibility that goes beyond simply providing new homes”, says Development Director, Simon Bryan. “It has always been a challenge, but we use our extensive local knowledge to design developments which reflect the character of their setting”.

However, the Planning process is a growing frustration:

“We have always recognised the importance of working with and listening to communities and stakeholders to explore local views on issues, for example on drainage, travel planning, wildlife and archaeology to name a few, and worked to ameliorate these concerns prior to submitting our application. But planning has become increasingly more bureaucratic, involving a large number of consultees who have growing influence. The expansive range of parties involved in the decision process is only creating significant delays and cost without improving the process. Ultimately it delays the rate at which new homes can be delivered.”

He confirms that some local authorities don’t always appear to understand the benefits which quality, sustainable, new housing can bring to their local economies. Good housing helps to attract new investment, creating thriving communities.

“Most authorities do not have site allocations or an adopted Local Plan. Even when land has the benefit of an outline planning consent, it often requires a high level of pre-application work, demanding more public consultation, exhibitions and more meetings with planning officers. Typically, surface water drainage would be addressed by our engineers as part of an application, but we are now finding some flood authorities are taking an extreme view requiring additional and unnecessary requirements to be met.

“As a result, the level of up-front costs incurred before submitting an application have significantly increased. To prepare and submit an application of a reasonably sized development can regularly cost around £150,000.”

Iain Jamie, the firm’s Land Director, interjects:

“From the time we identify a piece of land, it could be two or three years before we start on site because of the growing bureaucracy we have to contend with. It is only in the final stages of a project that we realise the profit on our original investment.

“Planning should be determined within 13 weeks, but that’s far from reality. It frequently takes a year just to get our application to a planning committee. Even at that stage, some councillors can disregard data from statutory consultees, and even overrule officer recommendations for approval.

“Section 106 obligations should then be a formality, but it can take months to reach agreement after planning consent has been granted.

“Despite the introduction of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which was supposed to simplify and speed up matters, there is still a tendency to see developers as a cash cow, by making unreasonable demands for local amenities or infrastructure which are too often unrelated to a new housing development.

“This is not conducive to making things happen, leading to unnecessary delays and erroneous accusations of ‘land banking’ because sites cannot be developed without agreement, whilst adding to the pressure on housing.”

From the beginning of October, local planning authorities are no longer permitted to impose pre-commencement conditions. Nevertheless, both directors suggest that, to reduce frustrations and delays, the Government should consider introducing measures to enforce timescales, and authorities should beef up their resources, or perhaps share specific expertise with others to speed up the process.

Simon added:

“Whilst we are fully appreciative of the reduced resources available at many Local Authorities, we are not seeing the same quality in planning service that was evident just a decade ago as there is often a lack of proper management of the application experience process. Furthermore we feel that senior officers should be empowered further to issue decisions, when applications are fully compliant with local and national policies.”

The company prides itself on developing sites which offer a good balance and variety of traditionally built new homes suitable for different types of home buyer, from first time buyers on Help to Buy, to families and downsizers, with two thirds of sites providing bungalows, which are in high demand. “There is definitely a trend for low maintenance, energy-efficient, single storey properties in locations which are easily accessible to public and private amenities.” Some sites offer shared equity homes that are sold at a discount to open market value, which are only available to ‘qualified’ buyers who have local connections and salaries below certain thresholds.

Arguing against the questionable leasehold practices now offered by some developers and management companies, Iain confirms, “We have never sold leasehold ‘houses’, and the ground rents for our leasehold apartments do not exceed 0.1 per cent of the value of the property, giving buyers security that this is fixed for 25 years and then only increasing in line with inflation.”

Increasingly, resident management companies control the communal areas on their completed sites, in the absence of local authorities agreeing to adopt them. “This approach gives buyers comfort, with every householder becoming a shareholder in their community, controlling their environment and the costs incurred. It also brings added responsibility to sustaining high standards”, explains Iain.

To maximise efficiency, the company uses subcontractors for on-site construction, closely monitored by their own management team. “Getting good quality tradespeople is an increasing challenge, and we are aware that some of our subcontractors are going overseas to recruit”, adds Simon.

“In the UK, the building industry isn’t recognised as a profession, yet more young people should be encouraged to learn trades, from plumbing to carpentry, brickwork to plastering, and landscaping. These are world-class skills, paying good salaries, yet all the emphasis is on academic careers, which can leave students in debt, and don’t necessarily bring the same financial rewards over a lifetime of working.”

Meeting with Hopkins Homes is yet another indication that, instead of interfering in what works well, in the interests of taxpayers and the economy, Government and local authorities should reduce bureaucracy – and actually listen to business.

Howard Flight: The best part of a week on, we can see that last week’s Budget was a popular one

The Chancellor has been fortunate that the public finances have improved substantially at a particularly convenient time.

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Philip Hammond has been fortunate that the public finances have improved substantially at a particularly convenient time. Economic growth has been revised up next year to 1.6 per cent; employment has been revised up, with 800,000 more jobs than forecast in 2023; wages will rise above inflation for the next five years.

The borrowing target has been met three years early, with the deficit now down to 1.9 per cent of GDP. The debt target has also been met three years early at a peak of 85 per cent of GDP. Borrowing is £11.6 billion lower than forecast at 1.2 per cent of GDP. This has improved significantly the scope of what the Budget can seek to address.

Overall public spending will increase by 1.2 per cent per annum, between 0.2 per cent and 0.4 per cent less than forecast growth. The improved tax yields have enabled the Prime Minister’s NHS commitment to be fully funded.

The Chancellor presented a pragmatic “micro” Budget, seeking to address virtually all of the issues which came up as needing attention. Yet perhaps its most important ingredient was a significant cut in taxation for the majority next April – increasing the personal allowance to £12,500 and the higher rate to £50,000 a year.

Local Authorities are getting an extra £1 billion of funding and business rates for retailers with rateable values below £51,000, will be cut by a third for two years. A further £1.7 billion each year will be provided to benefit working families on Universal Credit with the work allowance – the amount families can earn before losing credits – being increased by £1000 per annum.

A new two per cent digital services tax to insure that large digital firms pay a “fair share” of tax, is expected to raise £400 million per annum. Schools will get a further 400 million this year and defence will get a further £1 billion this year and next. There is also £160 million for counter-terror police. The national living wage will increase by nearly five per cent to £8.21. The national productivity investment fund will be increased to £37 billion and will be extended to 2024. Large roads will get £28.8 billion for 2020-25, and even potholes will get £420 million! PFI will be abolished, leaving a bill for £200 billion to be honoured.

There was a range of extra funding largely for small business – extending the annual investment allowance to £1 million; extending the start-up loans programme for 10,000 entrepreneurs; delivering the lowest corporation tax rate in the G20; keeping three million small businesses out of VAT; reducing the cost of taking on apprentices by halving the co-investment rate for non-levy payers; £121 million to support cutting-edge digital manufacturing; £78 million to fund electric motor innovations; £315 million in quantum technologies and £50 million for new Turing Fellowships.

Measures to help more people into home ownership include abolishing stamp duty retrospectively for first time buyers of all shared ownership properties of up to £500,000; an additional £500 million for the housing infrastructure fund; committing over £7.2 billion to a new help to buy equity loan scheme to support 110,000 new home buyers and the abolition of the housing revenue account cap controlling local authority borrowing for house building.

There are measures for those keen on the environment and more money for the Transforming Cities fund. Remarkably, the Chancellor has addressed virtually all the issues of concern to citizens and, as a result, I think, the best part of a week on, that this has proved to be a very popular Budget. The one important reform it has not addressed is the confiscatory rates of stamp duty on larger properties in London and the South East. This had led to a freezing up of the market – bad for revenues and for economic mobility.

Connor Short: For the NUS to survive it needs to offer students more than a free McFlurry

Other discount cards offer better deals. A more relevant role would be to provide some effective campaigning and to champion student rights.

Connor Short is the Youth Coordinator for Tory Workers and the Chairman for Wigan, Leigh and Makerfield Young Conservatives.

The National Union of Students is in crisis and it’s because they haven’t been seen to proudly champion students’ rights, but have instead opted to promote anti-Brexit marches and free McFlurries.

Ask a student if they have joined the NUS and they are more than likely going to say yes. However, ask them what they get from it, they are most likely going to say a free McFlurry and five per cent off at Amazon. It’s a great incentive and one that I would like to see our own party adopt in some fashion. But, the NUS is failing to show that they are more than a discount card. Their intent on selling discounts more than protections for students’ rights is what will bring them down. Unless they take a drastic change in direction.

Take a look at the NUS website and you will see what every member sees. Protest campaigns about Brexit and voting ages, sitting amongst tips for how to get a job and the discounts offered by the NUS discount card. Here lies the root of the current problem the NUS faces. On their accounts is a £3 million deficit. A quite sizeable deficit for a union. And if all the NUS offers is limp campaigns and a few special offers, they will see more university student unions disaffiliating.

In the last two years, the NUS has lost the affiliation of student unions from Loughborough University, Newcastle University, Hull University, University of Surrey and University of Essex. To lose five student unions is quite a large loss of membership revenue. These five universities add up to approximately 89,000 students, with potential membership revenue from the NUS card hitting a height of £1 million per year. And that’s just the disaffiliated Student Unions from the last two years. The NUS is missing some massive opportunities and need to keep student union affiliation at the forefront of their endeavours, rather than bussing activists down to the capital for a walk around and offering them a free McFlurry.

It is believable that rumours of a student union looking to disaffiliate themselves from the NUS would stir up tensions amongst the student community at the university. However, students simply don’t care. The NUS has failed to properly measure its competition. If it was to continue to market its unique selling point as the discount card they offer, then they should have spotted the rise of UniDays. It is also a discount card that offers discounts in a variety of categories, just like the NUS card. However, UniDays is free. Whereas, the NUS card costs £12 per year. Making the worry about losing McFlurry privileges, gone. Students at disaffiliated universities can simply sign up to UniDays and continue to enjoy discounts at top high street stores and restaurants, without having to hand over a piece of their student loan.

In order to suppress this crisis, the NUS needs to behave less like a discounts-first union and more like a rights-first union with the added bonus of a discount card.

For the NUS to survive, it needs to be seen as a necessity to students, rather than a luxury. Students need to see the NUS standing up against rogue landlords charging ridiculous fees to students, standing up for unfair suspensions of students, and providing legal advice to students who need it, amongst many other social justice fights that we see most other unions providing on a daily basis. Until this spirit of the union is achieved, sadly I do not believe the NUS will continue and students will be left seeking help on a local level without guidance from the expertise a national union would be able to offer.

When the NUS ceases its limp Brexit campaigns and begins to principally stand up for students’ rights, they may see a return to affiliation from some disaffiliated student unions and a decline in the number of new disaffiliated student unions. Thus, they will survive and eventually clear their deficit.

The double standards of those sneering about “pastiche”

Roger Scruton is advising the Government on ensuring new buildings are beautiful. But defeating the architectural establishment will not be easy.

Congratulations to Roger Scruton on his appointment as “Chair” (I suspect he might prefer to be called Chairman) of the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.

Sir Roger tells the Daily Telegraph that he prefers brick, stone, and wood to hardened steel, concrete, and glass. He adds:

“I have loved the built environment and felt wounded by the damage done to it. I want new buildings to harmonise with the urban environment to make them places for communities to live in.”

“The walkie-talkie skyscraper in London is as low as you can get in terms of ugliness. 

“The skyline of the of the City of London has been horribly mutilated. Taller is not better unless it’s done in the manner of Salisbury Cathedral. 

“It shouldn’t be a great fist thrust into the heavens. It should decorate the skyline.”

The new commission will “advocate”, “develop ideas”, “gather evidence from stakeholders”, and “inform the work” of Government departments. The difficulty is in the entrenched views of those deciding what new buildings should look like -the planners and the architects. They are unlikely to be persuaded by Sir Roger’s arguments – no matter how convincing they might be to the rest of us.

A single word has been with great power to silence those wishing to see beautiful new buildings. Pastiche. The hypocrisy of this sneer was alluded to in a lecture back in 1985, when I was young but “modernism” was already old. It was delivered by Dr Mark Girouard. He pointed out that according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word pastiche means “literary or other work of art composed in the style of a known author.” Girouard added:

“As far as architecture is concerned it is clearly possible to design a building in the style of Mies van de Rohe or Le Corbusier, and many, one might say all too many, such buildings have been built.” 

In practice, of course, the term is never used to take a swipe at modernists. However, many “housing units” have been produced from identikit concrete blocks. Instead, the term is used to denounce buildings “designed in the manner of Palladio, or the English Palladiane, or Lutyen”. Girouard found the “limitation of its meaning” in the way the term pastiche is used “intensely irritating”. He was not alone.

Sir Quinlan Terry says the term encapsulates one of the key “misunderstandings” concerning classical architecture:

“A popular misconception is that classical architecture is pastiche; it is often said that it is a simple matter of cribbing from the pattern books. I notice that many art historians are full of this and – like all people who are protected from reality – they will never learn until they start to practise. I believe there is something in the Gospels: ‘If you know these things, happy are ye if ye do them’. It is only in the doing that we learn. Say, for instance, you are asked to design a door in the Palladian manner. You turn to Palladio’s Quattro Libri and you find that you are only given the profile of the moulding. No guidance is given on size, scale, materials or construction. Even if you can decide on a door 3ft 6in wide by 7ft high with architraves one-sixth of the opening and an entablature above, how do you relate it to the wall? How do you convert these lines of an engraving into building materials?You are now faced with decisions about the lining, frame, door and its panelling, not to mention the treatment of the surround on the other side of the wall. To do this you have to draw on your knowledge and experience, and the result will express a number of architectural subtleties. If you are not careful you may also express your own shortcomings and lack of skill! If you feel that a door of this sort is not sufficiently important for its position you can add an Order either side and even a pediment.”

Kit Malthouse, the Housing Minister, is sympathetic to this defence. Speaking to Policy Exchange recently he declared:

Pastiche has become a pejorative word. It’s a word that is used by the architectural profession, particularly the starchitects, when feel are feeling threatened and they gather together and award each other prizes. Pastiche can be done incredibly well. I follow a Twitter account called New Classicism and they tweet photographs if building that look as though they were built 200 years ago. They look fantastic. Then they tell you that they were built in 2015. We should learn from history. In design we have lost the notion that there are accepted rules of proportion and space that fit, that feel harmonious.”

There was an interesting debate on the “Built Environment” in Parliament last week. Although, after his fearless comments to Policy Exchange, it seemed that Malthouse was a bit more nervous about the word:

“It is possible for modern, efficient and technology-driven design to echo our history and to reflect the local area without becoming pastiche.”

Malthouse has wavered before. When he was on the London Assembly, after (quite rightly) welcoming a proposal from Lord Rogers for Chelsea Barracks being ditched, Malthouse added:

“It is perfectly possible for modern architecture to embrace ancient materials and proportions without being pastiche.”

I also remember (to take the separate but related subject of modern art), Malthouse defending some awful rubbish being put on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

Anyway, the debate in Parliament was initiated by John Hayes, who said:

“It is critical that every local authority not only has a design guide that is particular to its locale, but that has site-specific design appraisals for those most important regenerative opportunities. It is not enough for a local authority to rely on some county-wide or area-wide design guide or very broad general motherhood-and-apple-pie design principles. There have to be specific requirements for developers, which allow places to continue to change in a way that is in keeping with what has been done before. That is about materials, scale and sometimes eclecticism; there are particular places that look a particular way. We do not want every high street and every housing development, every town and every city to be indistinguishable one from another, but that will only happen if we are very demanding of what we expect of developers.

“I was once shadow Housing Minister. I met many big developers, big names that we could reel off if we wanted to, and they all said to me, “John, if you are clear about the requirements, we will build our business plans to meet them. We understand that you want to build lovelier places, and we know that that is what people want anyway. We are quite happy to build things that people will like and want to buy, or places they will want to rent. Be very clear about your requirements and we will work to them.” It is not about taking on developers; it is about working with them, but being demanding of them.”

There was quite a bit of “motherhood-and-apple-pie” in the debate. Various MPs saying they were in favour of “good design” without making clear what they meant. While Hayes demanded a “black list of blight, which would allow us to demolish many more” eyesores, there was a counter message from Edward Vaizey, who spoke up for ugliness (or “brutalism”, which some of us regard as coming to much the same thing). “I caution against this debate tipping over into an attack on modern architecture,” pleaded Vaizey, boasting that he was the Minister “who listed Preston bus station to much anger.”

Robin Cook’s epitaph on the headstone of his grave in Edinburgh reads:

“I may not have succeeded in halting the war, but I did secure the right of Parliament to decide on war.” 

Will Vaizey’s inscription state – ?

“I was the Minister who listed Preston bus station to much anger.” 

Hayes said of Poundbury that the popularity of that place reminds him of a comment about the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music:

“No one liked it, apart from the public.”

I am pleased that politicians are showing a greater willingness to champion the wishes of their constituents when it comes to architecture. But we should be under no illusion over the contempt that modernists have for the public. If the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission is just a talking shop will not succeed – no matter how eloquent its pronouncements.

Brexit provides the opportunity for a revolution in the construction industry

Many people seem to think that innovation in construction is something that happens as a matter of course. From Palaeolithic caves to living in Neolithic mud brick houses; from Greek lintels to Norman arches; and from massive stone walls to slender steel frames, improvements in design, content and material efficiencies are a signal feature of […]

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Many people seem to think that innovation in construction is something that happens as a matter of course. From Palaeolithic caves to living in Neolithic mud brick houses; from Greek lintels to Norman arches; and from massive stone walls to slender steel frames, improvements in design, content and material efficiencies are a signal feature of progress over time. While it appears that living conditions improve naturally as history moves forward, in reality progress requires conscious human intervention to challenge and change the old, less efficient, less imaginative way of doing things.

And yet, the construction industry is stuck in the past. Over the decade to 2016, the National House Building Council Foundation confirmed that a constant 85% – 92% of new housing has been constructed using traditional brick/block masonry construction, a labour-intensive mode of building that has ostensibly remained the same for centuries. Essentially, clay raw material is dug from the ground, formed in moulds, placed in kilns and fired into bricks, these are transported by lorry across the country where armies of labourers work for weeks and months, in sun and rain, to place one on top of another.

There was a brief period, post-war, when new prefabricated techniques were almost commonplace. According to Chartered Surveyors, Peter Barry, between 1945 and 1955 “around 20% of new housing was system-built, amounting to some 500,000 units, with a further 750,000 units being constructed between 1955 and 1970”. However, sixty to seventy years later, we still sanctify the “wet trades” – sticking block upon block, slapping plaster on it and painting it by hand.

In 2010, at the height of the recession, there were 1.2 million construction labourers engaged in laborious processes. Surely, if innovation is required, here is a good place to start. But we have to recognise that if such an innovation revolution is to happen, then it is not going to be painless. As a vociferous opponent of Thatcher’s assault on the miners in the 1980s, I still realise that the transformation of the construction industry is going to have to be as radical if it is to be meaningful. Until then, we’ll continue to read reports that bemoan the lack of innovation. “It’s time to modernise the construction industry”, says the 2016 Farmer Review. You don’t say!

Brexit could be the one significant spark to help generate the innovative construction sector that we all need. It should, and must, force the construction industry to innovate.

In the UK, around 7% of construction workers come from other EU countries and 3% come from outside the EU. The Office for National Statistics reports that London’s construction sector relies on 28% of workers in London coming from EU countries, and 7% migrant labour from outside the EU. Of the EU workers, the majority are from central and eastern Europe, while 10% are Irish. Even though the Farmer Report cites an extant decline in the construction labour force due not to Brexit, but demographics (there will be, it says, a “20%-25% decline in the available labour force within a decade”), it is reasonable to assume that Brexit may indeed result in a shake-out of foreign workers labouring on sites across the country. But this needs careful assessment, not knee-jerk reactions.

Polish plumbers do not relish sticking their hands up the U-bends of the British public for the rest of their days when they could be employed back home laying much needed infrastructure; not all Romanian labourers are content to shovel gravel on the driveways of East Cheam when they could be building houses in their home towns to create a better quality of life for their children. The success of EU free movement has created a flow of poor people desperate to make something of themselves away from home, but not all enjoy the menial lifestyle that they have to endure to achieve it. It takes skilled and semi-skilled labour away from where it is needed.

Of course, like the characters in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, working abroad for short stints to amass some cash is a legitimate sacrifice for many. But many migrants will not be sad to leave their badly-paid, labour-intensive, shift-working existence crammed in the modern-day tenements of North London, provided that there are opportunities elsewhere. This is not a legitimisation of “a tough immigration policy” (as Brexit ought to provide the chance for a more liberal immigration policy), but a chance to improve working conditions and modernise a Dickensian industry. Industry needs will change and the consequence should be to allow people to make their own decisions rather than be driven by capital flows and an iniquitous labour market.

But if Brexit makes it more difficult to recruit menial manual labour (and there is nothing yet to say that it inevitably will), then this could provide the stimulus for innovative change. “Cheap labour” and “labour intensive” are the hallmarks of developing countries and nothing to be proud of. Mechanisation and investment in the next round of productive forces are important for the development of society through the liberation of workers from common drudgery.

The Independent recently described Brexit’s potential impact on the farming sector. By withdrawing the Common Agricultural Policy subsidies and the looming threat of restrictions on cheap, exploited Bulgarian and Romanian crop-pickers, there ought to be a drive for efficiency and innovation. One picker describes starting work at 5am until late afternoon earning £500-a week for six weeks of six-day work. Meanwhile, The Economist reported that “Brexit will force a change in farming that could change the face of rural Britain” and after reading about the paltry wages, we might add, “for the better”. Of course, it might simply increase the price of strawberries and seasonal vegetables. It might be that farming industry will refuse to play ball and British grapes will literally wither on the vine post-Brexit. But it should present an opportunity that can and should be seized. Cheap labour contents itself with a lack of innovation – why invest in machines when you have thousands of expendable workers willing to slave for a pittance? This is something that we ought not to condone.

Drawing the analogy back to the construction industry, the same opportunity prevails. Just as machines may pick crops, so machines may spray paint houses. Factories might make mass housing. Machines might 3D-print homes.

Of course, maybe construction costs will rise. Indeed, maybe construction workers’ wages will rise (surely no bad thing). But maybe, all those prefabrication and modern methods of construction innovators – who for years have not been able to get a foothold in the market because of the closed shop of the labour-intensive, old-fashioned construction industry – will suddenly find that they are being listened to. Suddenly “creativity” – the lifeblood of architecture – may be allowed to flourish. This could be the basis of a rational construction industry.

Obviously, none of this will happen if we perceive Brexit as a danger. But it is equally true that Brexiteers need to see this as a challenge. It is not a done deal. Innovation requires conscious planning for results to mean anything. Simply shaking up industry doesn’t mean that industry will respond positively or progressively. It requires political will. As the Egan Report said exactly 20 years ago: “We are issuing a challenge to the construction industry to commit itself to change”. Let’s seize the day.

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