There’s nothing wrong with a bit of urban sprawl

That’s a contentious statement, of course. Planning applications and decisions always arouse a lot of feeling, on all sides. And some of the strongest feelings are found in those who don’t want anything to be built anywhere near them. Equally, the idea that we might even consider building on greenfield land is considered sacrilege in many quarters.

As a town councillor, I get to see plenty of planning applications. And, as we’re in an area with a strong demand for housing, many of those are large-scale applications by developers wanting to build new housing estates of up to several hundred homes.

I’m not denying that we need more houses. It’s entirely unrealistic, in my opinion, to argue against any form of development in this area. The real questions, as I see it, are “what do we build?” and “where do we build?”.

And I think that the planning system in most of the UK – including here in Evesham, and Wychavon as a whole – is asking these in the wrong order. We’re trying to decide where the builders should be allowed to build, and then inviting them to put forward their proposals as to what to build there. And, because the land has already been earmarked for potential development, it’s hard to turn down an application that meets the necessary criteria however suboptimal it may be in other respects.

Take, for example, one that we looked at this evening. Or, rather, decided not to look at this evening, because we’d been given just 6 hours notice that we’d need to look at it and no supporting documents had been provided to us. As a council, we, rightly in my opinion, decided that it’s unreasonable to expect us to make any sensible comments on something at that short notice. So we dumped it back on the district planning committee, along with a moan about the lack of notice. But, anyway, it’s an application for 502 new houses in an area off Offenham Road in Evesham.

This is an area which falls within the local area development plan, so sooner or later we’re going to get houses built there. And I don’t really have a problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is the poor design of the proposals. One of the biggest issues that have been raised by objectors is the amount of traffic that the new development will generate on Offenham Road. The difficulty for the developers is that they don’t really have anywhere else to go; the traffic has to access the estate somehow and there’s no other way for it to do so.

But the reason that’s an issue is because of the sheer size of the development. 502 houses is a lot. And it’s that many, because they’ll be densely packed. And that’s one of the worst aspects of many modern housing developments.

Here are a couple of aerial shots from Google. The first is a fairly traditional housing estate built on a grid system:

Note how, despite the fact that it looks fairly dense from the roadside, there’s a lot of space behind the houses. There are long gardens, and the overall appearance is fairly green.

By contrast, here’s a more recent housing estate, less than a mile away:

This is different. Although the houses themselves are larger, and are mostly detached (this is primarily an “executive” estate), the overall density is higher. There’s a lot less greenery, and what there is is mainly in communal areas like the open space in the bottom centre.

Now, here’s an extract from the application I mentioned above:

This is just a small corner of the plan, but it illustrates the problem. Look at the size of the gardens in the existing houses at the bottom (the section in monochrome), and compare them with the gardens on the new houses (in colour). Even the expensive houses in the new development (eg, those at the bottom right) will be built on smaller plots of land than much cheaper traditional stock (such as those mid-left, just below the “point” of the new development). The cheaper (aka “affordable”) housing in the new development will barely have anything bigger than a back yard.

I think this is bad. It’s bad for a number of reasons. For a start, there’s a huge amount of demand for houses with a decent sized garden. Families who want space for the children to play, for example, or the green-fingered who want to grow their own fruit and veg. In Evesham, the waiting list for allotments is about as large as the number of people who already have them. A lot of that pressure comes from people who simply don’t have the room to grow much beyond a tub of patio tomatoes at home.

Traditional low-density suburban housing estates are also a haven for wildlife. The sheer variety of different uses – lawns in one, then flower beds in the next, and vegetables next to that, for example – creates a varied habitat that supports a large number of birds and small mammals. By contrast, many of the “gardens” in more recent developments tend to be mainly patio and small, uniform lawns, which is far less wildlife friendly. The communal open spaces, while giving the impression of greenness from the roadside, tend towards a corporate monoculture designed for ease of maintenance rather than providing genuine environmental benefits.

And, of course, the more houses you cram into a smaller space, the more people you will have living in them and the more traffic they will generate when they drive to work, or the shops, or to wherever they go for leisure. Which is back to where we came in, with the traffic on Offenham Road. And, however much we may fervently wish it were otherwise, it’s entirely unrealistic to expect that anything other than an overwhelming majority of house buyers on these new developments will be dependent on the car.

So why are we doing it? Why are we encouraging the creation of new developments that are too tightly packed?

The reason is that we’ve got our priorities the wrong way round. What we currently do is allocate land for housing, and then invite developers to fill it. And they fill it with as many houses as they can get away with, because that’s what makes the most profit.

I’d like to see a sea change in planning policy. Rather than telling developers where they can build, I’d like to start by telling them what we want built and then let them come forward with proposals to meet that. And yes, if they can’t pack as many houses into smaller spaces as they can now, that is going to result in more land usage overall. It might even – quelle horreur – result in new developments extending outwards into greenfield sites.

But I think that’s OK. That’s how villages, towns and cities have grown organically in the past – outwards. I agree that there is a case for protecting some areas which have particular significance, and I also agree that towns and villages should retain space between them and not merge into one another. So Evesham should not be allowed to expand so far that it meets Badsey, for example, coming the other way. But there is plenty of space around Evesham – particularly to the south-west and north-east – where expansion could take place without coming anywhere near another town or village. We could usefully make a start by extending the by-pass clockwise from the Cheltenham Road junction to meet Pershore Road the other side of Hampton. That would reduce traffic through Hampton, and give a hook on which to hang a new development which extends Hampton to the south.

There’s a lot of space out there which could easily meet all our housing needs, if only we had the courage to use it. But instead, we’re compressing more and more housing into a fixed space, with predictably undesirable results. Some of our most important town centre open spaces are under threat, because of the need to shoehorn as many people as possible into a relatively limited space.

Evesham, and other market towns like it, did not grow up as a high-density urban settlement. Sure, it has some higher density sections, but these have always been balanced by open space and low density housing. The modern fad for prioritising in-fill over expansion is turning our historic market towns into mini-Manhattans surrounded by a sea of farmland. It’s time for that to change.

Fixing Jim

Now then, now then. Two reports from Operation Yewtree are out, and we now know what a rotten bounder Jimmy Savile was. Or do we?

Let’s start with a few facts that can be gleaned. Firstly, there is no real evidence at all that Savile was a paedophile. Although most of the allegations come from people who were under the age of consent at the time, there are no more than a handful – if any – which assert that his victims were pre-pubescent.

Secondly, both the number and detail of the allegations makes it almost certain that, had action been taken while he was still alive, Savile would have faced a lengthy spell in prison. Quite possibly, he’d have died there.

Finally, though, it’s also clear that many of the allegations would, alone, not have met the test for prosecution or even investigation. Some of them, for example, seem to consist of little more than a misremembered account of a fan’s slightly uncomfortable encounter with a celebrity. As Charles Moore points out in the Daily Telegraph, a list of allegations is not at all the same thing as a list of offences.

That doesn’t mean I’m defending Savile. As I said a couple of paragraphs ago, I think there is enough evidence to be sure, beyond reasonable doubt, that Savile was guilty of many instances of serious abuse, quite probably including rape. And, if true, it is a genuine scandal that it wasn’t uncovered earlier. But some of the statements being bandied about in the media are grossly inaccurate, and I don’t think tha’s at all helpful. It is, for example, simply not true that Savile was a “Predatory paedophile[1] who spent “every waking minute” thinking about offending and “groomed the nation“. The first of these is factually inaccurate, the others are pure hyperbole.

But does that matter? I think it does. It seems to me that the media’s reaction to the Savile allegations is a perfect tendency of the press to simplify everything. When he died, Savile was a hero. A few years later, he’s public enemy number one. The possibility that, actually, he could have been both a great entertainer and philanthropist AND a serial abuser seems to be beyond the ability of the typical journalist to grasp.

The real tragedy, of course, is that the truth will probably never be known. In the absence of a defendant there can be no trial, and if there can be no possible trial then there is no incentive for the police or CPS to carry out any more than a cursory investigation into the allegations. That’s particularly bad news for the real victims, who will never get the chance to demonstrate to a court that they weren’t just starstruck groupies who later regretted allowing Savile to cop a feel. There are already articles on the web dismissing all of the allegations as having no substance, and using some of the more obviously trivial cases as evidence for that assertion. I think that’s wrong; I think that Savile really did commit some serious crimes. But it doesn’t help the victims of those crimes if they are merely listed as another allegation along with those which would be most unlikely to withstand trial. And at the other end of the scale are the conspiracy theorists who see the failure to prosecute Savile as evidence of a giant cover-up in the establishment.

So, are there any lessons we can learn? To be honest, I’m not sure there are. Of course, the CPS are busily promising that things will change and that allegations will be taken more seriously in future, but I’m not sure that will really help. So far, as part of the concurrent investigation into allegations against people other than Savile, the police have made a few high profile arrests. But I have a sneaking suspicion that most of those will fizzle out without leading to a conviction.

There has already been a sea change in attitudes here. Back when Savile was offending (and most of the allegations relate to the 60s, 70s and 80s when he was at the peak of his fame), it was almost impossible to be taken seriously if you made an accusation of sexual abuse against an authority figure. These days, people are considerably more willing to believe a complaint. That’s something which has come back to haunt the Catholic church, for example, as historic allegations of abuse levelled at priests are now being made public and the hierarchy has been forced to admit complicity in a cover-up. The convictions of Gary Glitter and Jonathan King have demonstrated that celebrities are not immune.

I think it’s very likely that if a popular entertainer was behaving now in the way that Savile did 20 or 30 years ago then they would find it considerably harder to avoid detection. And that’s a good thing. But it does mean that there isn’t a lot more we can do. The reason why Savile wasn’t brought to justice before he died wasn’t really because of failings by the police and CPS, it was because society as a whole didn’t take that kind of abuse seriously. Far from Savile grooming a nation, it’s more the case that celebrity culture groomed Savile to be an abuser.

I think the real lesson we can learn is that offenders come from all walks of life, and sometimes they can be people who are, in many other ways, entirely deserving of praise. Savile’s celebrity status doesn’t excuse his behaviour, but neither do his crimes nullify the good he did. He was a great entertainer, he did do a huge amount for charity, and he was deservedly recognised for that. People do not fall neatly into two boxes simply labelled “good” and “bad”, and Savile is evidence of that.

[1] This is a real “predatory paedophile”. Savile was nowhere near this level of offending, even if every allegation made against him is completely accurate.

Cereal killers

There’s been much activity in the Twittersphere regarding the suggestion by the Shadow Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, that food manufacturers should be prohibited from selling foods with too much sugar. A lot of these are breakfast foods, giving rise to a number of witty comments including the one which forms my headline. Other tweeters are up in arms at what they see as typical Labour statism wanting to take responsibility away from individuals.

I’m no fan of Labour’s authoritarian approach to legislation, obviously, and neither is anyone with any genuine grasp of the importance of personal freedom. The mainstream libertarian left is to be found mainly in the Liberal Democrats these days, and the libertarian right is split between the Conservatives and UKIP (although all these parties have their share of authoritarians as well). So it’s no surprise that the more thoughtful responses to Burnham’s proposals come from these groups.

Having said that, I think there is a genuine problem here. One of the problems with libertarianism as a political principle (and something that has to be honestly faced by anyone who would call themselves a libertarian) is that there are, quite simply, too many people who lack either the ability or the desire to act in rational self-interest. And these people do matter, not least because their self-destructive tendencies affect the rest of us. There’s plenty of evidence that children who grow up with a poor diet are significantly more likely to become net recipients of state spending as adults.

So, what’s the solution? Should we be banning Coco Pops, and refusing planning permission for McDonalds to open near schools (as has been suggested by Diane Abbot, Shadow Minister for Public Health)?

Personally, I don’t think so. I’m not arguing that legislation is never the answer; I think that there may be cases in extremis where it’s the most practical solution to the problem of people being incapable of acting rationally. But I don’t think it’s the case here. I’m open to persuasion otherwise, but it seems to me that this particular proposal is merely addressing one particular symptom rather than the cause.

What does bother me, though, is the dishonesty inherent in the proposals. Blame the naughty manufacturers for making things that people want to buy, and the naughty retailers for selling them. I’ve said that people’s inability to act rationally is a problem for libertarians, but it’s an even bigger problem for socialist authoritarians. Because authoritarianism says, in effect, to the people it regulates “We don’t trust you, we think you’re evil or stupid or otherwise incapable of getting it right without our help”. Now, I’m actually quite comfortable with saying that to some people, because, frankly, that really does describe a significant proportion of the population. But for Labour, that’s electoral suicide, because nearly everyone who falls into that category also happens to vote for them.

That means Labour politicians are caught in something of a catch 22. They know that the reason there is a problem is because a lot of people are stupid. But they also know that a lot of those people vote for them. So they can’t openly come out and say “We’re doing this for your own good, because if we don’t then you’re just going to be more and more of a burden on an already overloaded welfare state”. Instead, they have to try to make it seem as if the fault lies with those who make and sell foods which, if eaten to excess, can be harmful. And that’s dishonest, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong at all with sugary breakfast cereals if eaten as part of a balanced diet. In fact, when it comes to healthy eating, the evidence points in the other direction: having no breakfast at all is worse for you than having too much.

The other reason it’s dishonest is because it tries to shuffle the debate away from the real, underlying issue. What do we do about people who can’t, or won’t, make rational decisions about things like diet, employment, parenting and finance? We cannot solve those problems by pretending that everyone with obese children, or who is hugely in debt to a payday loan company, is a victim of predatory capitalism. The reality is that if everybody made rational decisions, these companies would either go bust or start selling something else. Which is how the free market works.

Maybe we do need to regulate food manufacturers, or short term lenders. I’d actually be more in favour of regulating the latter than the former, mainly because there would be less collateral damage to those who are capable of running their own lives. But, either way, any justification for regulation has to start from the fact that it’s only necessary because people buying the products are dumb, not because those selling them are evil. And Labour’s attempt to make it sound as though it’s the latter merely demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of their politics.