Meeting the Challenge: the built environment

I gave this speech during the debate at conference on the party’s Meeting the Challenge policy paper.

Into my surgery comes yet another complainant, and the complaint this time – gangs of youths hanging around, or zooming on mopeds or just sitting on a wall.

Moving or still, it seems, young people attract complaints – just as if they’re silent, they’re sullen and threatening, and if they’re making noise – they’re rowdy and threatening. Sometimes they really can’t win – it is as if the problem is being young – but at least they can say they are moving to putting youth behind them each and every day.

And if they wear hoods … well, I have to say nice things about hoodies because one of my daughters has been known to wear one, and she is just the loveliest … and if watching this, now doubtless squirming with embarrassment at her mother!

But seriously – the problem is real. It may often be one of perception rather than reality, but fears needs addressing whatever they are based on. And think about the underlying causes – the environment, the buildings, the street layout around them.

I recently gave evidence to a local planning enquiry to support local people against yet another thoughtless, ugly, cheap, squashed, anonymous tower block. It was the third in a year like that which I’ve appeared at. If these developments were well-designed and attractive – they would not run into the sort of hail of protest that regularly greets them and they would not blight the built environment nor the aspirations of the people living there for decades to come.

We desperately need more housing – but we don’t need built-in future deprivation. But the presumption is in favour of development in planning rules encourage exactly this. For if the developer loses a planning decision – they can appeal. But if the residents lose – they can’t. Big business can appeal; ordinary residents can’t. Where’s the fairness in that?

And developers can come back again and again and again with application after application after application until they succeed – but if someone in the area campaigns against them, gets elected to the council – does all the right and praiseworthy things about taking part in our democratic process – they get barred from the decision making process in the interests of “fairness”. Well that’s not fair either – that’s kow-towing to big business and developers again. What has New Labour come to where it bans people from making a decision if they stand up to big business interests? No wonder David Cameron wants the Tories to be more like Blair’s Labour – they’re even more in hock to big business interests that the Conservatives ever were.

And so we end up with high rise, poorly designed, lowest common denominator housing fostered on areas of deprivation on the cheap. Cheap, shoddy housing is then defended on the grounds “but it is needed”. But that is no excuse for poor quality.

Developers won’t like me for this – but I think they get away with murder far too often. And yet their record at producing good or bad, popular or unpopular, developments barely features in decisions about whether to let them go ahead with a development or not. I think that should change – we should make the quality of a development a top priority in giving or refusing permission – and we should make sure the views of the public are genuinely represented in setting quality. Let’s have a developers’ league table – test them by interviewing the residents of their previous developments. If residents and neighbours like them – go to the top of the table and have a better chance of getting future planning permission. Fail and be unpopular – then it should be sorry, you’re not building round here next time.

But to return to where I started – how can you not hang out in the streets when your bedroom meets only the minimum size requirements? And when your bedroom is a box and your parents are in the sitting room – where else can you be with your friends? Have can you get on well with your neighbours when paper-thin walls and poor sound insulation means every squeak and thump gets on your nerves? How can you avoid annoying our neighbours when there’s no place to throw the ball but against someone’s wall?

There has been a lot of talk in recent decades about designing-out crime. It’s about time we stopped developers designing-in anti-social behaviour. Of course there is much more that goes wrong with serious anti-social behaviour, but we should tackle the causes of those initial frictions and hostilities that feature so frequently in the parade of people who come to see me in my surgery.

And it is always the folk living in the most deprived areas who are the more blighted by these problems – locking in problems rather than helping people reach their potential, when what we really need is the best building there is, to raise people’s eyes and aspirations and give them the surroundings to thrive.

I commend the paper and support the motion, but I ask conference to remember that equality and removing barriers take many forms.

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