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How to save our High Streets and green fields in one go

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ConHome readers are intelligent, aesthetically literate folk so – of course – you’ll already be familiar with my article in The Daily Telegraph on protecting the UK’s favourite city and townscapes. But on the off chance you missed it, or if the details have temporarily slipped your memory, here’s the summary version: all cities are in permanent, slow-motion flux, so the skylines and views we all take for granted in our towns or cities have been built up from successive layers of old and new construction. With a few exceptions like London’s Mall or Bath’s Royal Crescent, they are accidental rather than planned. So some are gorgeous, while others are awful. If we want our towns and cities to be beautiful places to live and work – and, since most of us spend the majority of our lives in them, we should – then we must keep the good ones when, over centuries, the others are ripped down and redeveloped.

How? Well, we already protect individual buildings by listing them, and a few narrow views of places like St Paul’s Cathedral from specific vantage points too. But there’s nothing to protect the local, day-to-day beauty of your neighbourhood park, high street or canal towpath. So I’m proposing a system of ‘listed views’, like listed buildings, to make sure the best ones stay safe.

Now, as the man who wrote the Party’s policy on slashing red tape, you’d think I’m the last person to propose yet more rules and bureaucracy to tie up our developers and slow down the economic recovery. And you’d be right. Because, if we spend a little time deciding which views are worth keeping, we can relax the rules and regulations on all the others. For the first time, builders and developers would know their plans are safe from being ambushed by someone with a cap and clipboard deciding they need to preserve a view that isn’t officially designated on any map, of a building that’s nowhere near their site. Instead they’d simply check the list of protected views, work their plans around any that affected their site, and get cracking. If you’re willing to invest millions to regenerate a rundown urban area, you want speed and certainty. Slashing unpredictable bureaucracy that slathers on costs and delays would deliver it for you.

Take your local High Street. Everyone is worried that, because we’re all shopping online, it’s going to die. Frankly I doubt the problems are terminal, but everyone agrees that – like everything that has ever walked the Earth – High Streets will have to evolve to survive. No-one’s perfectly sure how, of course, but tomorrow’s High Streets will certainly look very different from today. The successful ones will probably be places to meet and enjoy yourself, with plenty of bars, restaurants, cinemas and so forth, rather than temples to shopping that turn into ghost-towns by 6pm. But many High Streets will find it hard to make the switch, because the buildings aren’t designed for it. Look at the upper floors next time you walk down one and you’ll see huge amounts of barely-used space, marooned and isolated because no-one can get at it. The column of unbuilt fresh air or little-used offices and staff canteens above most High Street shops should be some of the most valuable and useful bits of real estate in the country, but large parts of it are sealed off.

So why hasn’t this potentially valuable real estate been enthusiastically grabbed and developed into flats, offices or whatever by entrepreneurial developers? Well, mainly because it’s hard to make money doing it. But if you knew that a possible site wasn’t part of a protected view, you could replace a tired old nothing-special building with something that’s ready to become part of the High Street of the future. It would have the right mix of retail, leisure, offices and even residential flats to work in the new world. It would be taller, of course, but not absurdly so; think of Parisian boulevards with apartments above ground floor cafes and shops as an example of what might be possible. These would be great places to live and work, with nice surroundings and a great vibrant atmosphere.

And we need the change to happen. Not just to breathe life into our High Streets, but because we urgently need more housing too. Nick Boles, the Housing Minister, is warning we may need to build on greenfield sites, otherwise only the rich will be able to afford to buy houses, because the country needs to build another 270,000 homes for each of the next five years. So this approach is what High Street retailers call a ‘two for one’; it would save Britain’s green fields, and our High Streets too, by building up rather than out.

So here’s the other half of the policy. In addition to ‘listed urban views’, let’s take away the rules that prevent town centre developers from building upwards, to revive our High Streets. We already let people extend their houses a little without planning permission – it’s called ‘permitted development’ – so why not allow the same thing here? We could tell developers they could build upwards to a local maximum height, to match the other buildings in the same block, for example, or the height of the nearest church tower, or the local treeline: and they wouldn’t need planning permission to do it. Listed views would protect the pretty bits; listed buildings would save the historic bits; and everything else would be fair game. It could save our High Streets and our Green Belt at the same time. Why not?

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