Some planning common sense – at last.

Eric Pickles

Eric Pickles

While drawing breath from attacking local councils for putting up parking charges to fill the gaping hole in their finances caused by savage cuts in central government funding, it seems that Eric Pickles and his Department for Communities & Local Government has finally woken up to at least part of the shambolic mess that is our planning system.

It seems that Eric and his planning minister have finally recognised a sad truth that I and many others have been saying for quite a few years now, highlighting a problem started by the Labour government with their regional spatial strategies.  Eric is expected to announce a consultation on reducing the number of standards imposed on house builders but also to introduce one new one in the form of a minimum space requirement for homes.  This is welcome news but sadly late after thousands of rabbit hutch homes have been imposed on reluctant communities and house buyers.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has released figures to show what many recent house buyers will know only too well.  The average British home has decreased in size by 40% over 80 years.  This is at a time when a family’s physical possessions have grown hugely, when there is a reluctance to allow children to play in the park or street and when there is a growing tendency for many people to work from home for a part of their working week.  All of these pressures might have led us to expect an increase in the average size of a family home and not the reverse.

The result is an inability for many families to sit round a dining table for a meal because there is no room for a dining table and chairs.  With wholly inadequate storage space in these tiny houses, the garage is inevitably full of household items for which there is no room in the home and including the family freezer, father’s golf clubs, tool kits, ladders and exercise bike, mother’s pram and push chair, children’s toys, bikes, scooters and the family suit cases, skis, not to forget three wheelie bins.  The result is that there is no room in what is often a tiny garage for a single car.  In some cases the garage provided with a modern home is just too small to house a modern family car even if the garage was not filled with the possessions listed above.  I hope the proposed space standards will include adequate car parking.

Received wisdom, promoted by the last Labour government but strangely continued by the current coalition has been to discourage car use by restricting parking provision on new housing developments.  King Canute had the same idea about stopping the incoming tide.  Encouraging a switch to walking, cycling or public transport in some urban areas may be sensible and workable but it is plain crazy in rural areas like Adderbury where I live.

For most villagers, the motor car is a necessity and not a luxury.  Public transport in the form of buses is woefully inadequate; the nearest train station may be five or more miles away, making walking a nonsense for all but the fitness fanatic with plenty of time on their hands.  As for cycling, you need to be determined and fearless to cycle on many of our main roads with no separate cycling provision as huge lorries thunder past.  You also have to be pretty fit to cycle your way to the top of the hills that typify many rural settlements, built on the top of a hill when fortification and defence from nearby savage tribes was a key locational determinant.

So, well done to Eric Pickles and his colleagues for recognising the need to build homes that support modern family life but they need to do more.  In particular:

  • to change the  blinkered mindset of  our planners about residential parking standards in rural areas by insisting on garages that are large enough to take the cars families need to get round and also providing parking spaces sufficient for visitors and traders to occupy without making a housing estate look like a second hand car lot.
  • to encourage planners to be tougher with developers about the style of housing development.  Builders should not be allowed to build small urban extensions on the edges of fine old villages like Bloxham in North Oxon that have no sympathy with the architectural style of the village and could be found in just about any urban location anywhere in the country.  If you don’t know what I mean, drive to the Milton Road on the edge of Bloxham and see the damage that planners have allowed in this fine old Domesday village.

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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