Boris Johnson must resist the urge to build, build, build back the same

A response to Boris Johnson’s “Build Build Build” mantra

My (increasingly bushy) eyebrows raised somewhat last week when Boris Johnson stood in front of his podium with his latest three worder “build, build, build” and his promise to cut red tape around infrastructure – and raised even further when the chancellor promised to cut stamp duty during his economic statement delivered yesterday. 

It is clear that property and infrastructure are a key focus for the government currently when it comes to Covid-19 recovery.

Was this the progressive, forward-thinking “liberal Boris” we have heard so much about coming to the fore? I think not. His insistence that “the newt-counting delays in our system are a massive drag on the productivity and prosperity of this country” are typical of what we have come to expect of the Prime Minister, and could well end up serving nobody other than the more unscrupulous developers and investors.   

Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm to cut through red tape to speed up the process is dangerous and should concern us all. It is simply a byword for short-cuts to short-term profits, rather than a sustainable solution to the housing shortage.

Now is not the time to rush headlong into ill-conceived visions of buildings, amenities and networks springing up across the nation like knotweed, replicating and multiplying what we already had pre-Covid. First must come a considered planning phase, designing the future we need together.

When it comes to urban infrastructure, there are no easy answers to guide this recovery journey. However, the answer isn’t to create a planning free-for-all that creates yet more semi-isolated, car-dependent developments and makes a few landowners rich.

It is easy to see why the “build, build, build” policy might at first appear attractive, especially to young people. I am thinking of those who have had the joy of a lockdown played out in cramped shared accommodation with no space at all outside — some of whom have had enough of inner city living and are prepared to commute from the outskirts if it means they have decent space to live in and access to outside space. Doesn’t it seem wrong that we attract young talent to our financially thriving cities and then put them in rabbit hutches?

These thoughts take me back to my days at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, when in 1999 Richard Rogers’ ‘Towards and Urban Renaissance’ became the planning mantra.

This was a common sense and sustainable approach to ensuring that our cities and transport nodes were densified to make best use of resources and ensure that shops and services benefited from this density.

However, for many developers it became an opportunity to  ‘cram cram cram’ people in, maximising returns. The planning system had too little clout and often lacked the skills to prevent the laudable aims of Towards an Urban Renaissance from being delivered. Instead, it often ended up with tiny newbuild apartments without outdoor space.

Now there is a risk of the same thing happening again, adding more tiny living spaces to the overly subdivided older properties that Covid-19 has proved are totally unsuitable for the wellbeing of so many.

We need to ensure we take the right lessons forward from the coronavirus pandemic as a society. We have to learn from the reduction in respiratory-related (Covid-19 excepting) illnesses resulting from decreased air pollution levels during lockdown. We have to learn that for many the only solace of the past few months has been to venture outside, walk, run, cycle, enjoy the sound of birdsong and to watch springs and summer unfold in real time. 

We surely have a duty to respond to the wellbeing issues that have been loudly trumpeted, resulting from cramped conditions and a lack of access to green spaces.

Intelligent and carefully thought-out infrastructure solutions are needed that don’t pander to the Nimbys but instead listen to environmentalists. Yes we need to act fast, but simply slashing red tape and allowing a culture of building purely to get people working is short-sighted short-termism bundled up with long-term self-harm.

Do we densify the suburbs and create 15 minute neighbourhoods? Do we build garden cities and do it properly? Could we rezone our towns and cities and create green spaces where there were once retail parks? There are radical and not so radical solutions out there.

This is not the time to build back the same. Rather, now is the time for developers, planners, environmentalists, pressure groups and young diverse voices to come together and plan, plan, plan.