‘The built environment can be more beautiful than nature’: it sounds like a topic for discussion at a secondary-school debating competition. If only. It’s actually an opinion expressed earlier this week by housing minister Nick Boles. There are a number of things about this statement that made me wince when I heard it. Most importantly, that he utterly failed to qualify this as a personal opinion.
But first there’s something that’s bugging me at the centre of the issue: where are all these people clamouring for houses? I know that our population is increasing. But, at the risk of sounding like Nigella Farage, since we have thousands of illegal immigrants in the country, wouldn’t it make more sense for the government to tackle that problem first and then see if we still need more houses? Just saying. Or, since we are living for longer and longer and few of us can afford to pay for our care in our elderly years, we could go back to living with our extended families. This might make our society a little less disparate and minimise the gap between the young and the old which allegedly leads to a self-righteous youth with no sense of what it means to do a day’s work.
Mr Boles urges us not to be too sentimental about the future of green-field land, but rather to recognise that land is fallow unless there’s a house growing out of it. Even if you’re not at all affected by the aesthetics of the natural world, surely any educated person can understand that the mysterious simplicity with which nature continues to bloom year after year is much more inspiring than watching bricks being piled on top of one another.
He makes our relationship with the environment sound very clinical, as though he’s striving to achieve some kind of optimal ratio of green space to built space (he wants to increase the amount of developed land from 9% to 12%). In this era of cuts and increased efficiency, I can understand how the apparently empty fields Mr Boles zooms past on the train to Westminster might not seem to be fulfilling their full capacity. They must seem like an obvious choice for development if the closest you get to smelling manure is reading a dossier on Emmerdale put together to try and make you look a bit more ‘in-touch’. Someone ought to carry out a national field audit so that we can maximise their full potential.
What’s worse is that Mr Boles’ political position means that his subjective appraisal of what constitutes beauty could affect the future of our landscape. He says he doesn’t want any more ‘pig ugly’ council estates dashed off by ‘lazy’ builders. Beauty is of course a nebulous, subjective concept, and it would be fundamentally unfair if we were only to allow future developments that conformed to Mr Boles’ own aesthetic tastes. But is he really so sure that it’s laziness that results in ‘ugly’ developments? Builders are employed to build, not to design, and if there isn’t enough money to pay an architect, there’s nothing stopping builders from putting together kit houses. If you ask me, it’s not ‘lazy’ if a builder responds to a housing demand with the cheapest possible option, it’s just a good way to please people on a budget who are desperate for their own home. So, in addition to offending a vast swathe of builders with his accusatory generalisations, Mr Boles has demonstrated with this comment that he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. Which is a bit odd, given his job.
I think this is just the thin edge of the wedge: if we keep eating into the countryside, we’ll end up as a vast floating city, a supersized Venice. How exactly the MPs intend to feed an increasing population from a diminished arable environment is conveniently glossed over. Yes we could just ship everything in from abroad, but do we really want to be even more dependent on other countries to fill our nation’s bellies?
Half-baked ideas are to be expected, but not at this high level. When you are announcing schemes to the general public, you have the responsibility to show that you have thought through the ultimate consequences beyond your term in government, rather than just throwing out quick-fix solutions for you to lampoon the next government with. I’m not really sure what his logic is.