Politicians have never had a great reputation. In most polls of occupations you’d like your children to enter, they rank somewhere between bankers, journalists and smallpox. And if you look at old-time newspaper caricatures, it’s been that way for centuries.
But most MPs I meet, from every political party, do the job because they want to make the world a better place. They may disagree strongly with each other about how to do it, but not about why they’re all there in the first place.
So you can imagine the thrill and delight which any politician feels when one of their ideas gets adopted as Government policy. If you want to change the world, and a Cabinet Minister says they’re going to do what you’ve been arguing should happen for ages, it’s Christmas come early.
Which is what happened to me at Conservative Party conference 10 days ago. The Secretary of State for Housing announced my idea of ‘building up not out’ was going ahead. Bingo!
The idea is pretty simple really. In towns and cities like Weston or Bristol, homeowners would be able to rebuild or convert one or two-storey homes into four or five-storey houses or apartment blocks and, providing they followed a pre-approved local style code issued by the Council, they wouldn’t have to go through the hassle and expense of planning permission either.
The effect would be electrifying. We’d nearly double the amount of potential space for homes at a stroke, meaning lots more good-looking houses and apartments would get built quickly. Compare that to the measly 1 or 2% extra homes we’re currently adding each year, and you can see the size of the change.
Lots more homes being built will mean they’re more affordable, whether you want to rent or buy. But current homeowners won’t lose out, because most existing homes will suddenly have potential for being expanded or extended if they want. So they’ll be worth plenty too.
The local style codes will matter as well, because they will mean the new building will be good looking, rather than carbuncles. Most local Councils will want to use local architectural styles and materials, so we can kiss goodbye to ‘anywhere-ville’ estates of identical houses that look the same whether you’re in Norwich or Newcastle.
It would be lots greener too. ‘Building up not out’ in towns and cities takes pressure off greenfield building sites and stops urban sprawl in its tracks. And, because we’d all be able to live closer to work if we wanted, there’d be much less commuting. Plus new buildings can use the latest techniques to minimise their environmental impact as well.
Which would all be great but, with any Government policy, you can’t relax. There’s still plenty to go wrong once the idea has been announced. For example, a smaller version of my idea was announced last year too, by the previous Secretary of State. It’s great to know the new version is bigger and more ambitious, because it shows we’re making progress. But it proves there’s a whole lot more detail, on everything from building safety to heritage conservation for old buildings, that’s still got to be dealt with. You can’t relax until the ink is dry on the Queen’s signature on a new law. Don’t open the cider until then!