There was an interesting argument made by the Architect and blogger Karl Sharro on Radio 4’s Four Thought Show on Wednesday night. In it, he put forward a relatively simple but astonishingly radical view — that we should be able to build what we want, when we want.
Sounds mad, doesn’t it? Surely, if that happened, it would be a free-for-all and all sorts of disasters would happen. Well, Karl kind of accepted that. Mistakes would happen, but we would learn from them. The point was that, until relatively modern times, planning controls didn’t really exist. So what we consider the great architectural gems of the built landscape – from Paris to Venice, and more pertinently the Georgian and Victorian buildings, towns and cities we fight so hard to protect today – they all happened without the need for local authority development control. Pre-control: Bath’s Royal Crescent. Post control: Poundbury, and every single grim housing estate you could care to drive past (at speed).
Also post planning control: high house prices. It’s now received wisdom that we need to build more homes and, let’s face it, we aren’t going to get anywhere near our targets unless we come up with something radical. Every new estate takes years to negotiate planning permission, fiery local meetings, local authorities reluctant to give in, before the Secretary of State intervenes. All that for 120 homes. And they will generally be a blot on the landscape, and poorly built. Development control: this is the system that we have to negotiate if we want to build more homes. The proof is in the name.
Much better, surely, to allow a demand-led, bottom-up approach to housing. You want a house? Great! Go out and get it built, or build it yourself. Where you want. It would, overnight, slash the tires of the overpriced car that is the preserve of the wealthy landowner. Land would become massively cheaper, and so would homes. Developers would build. Self-builders would build.
Sure, we’d make some mistakes. But it’s a thought, isn’t it?