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Planning Reform? Look to West Bank to See How to Tackle a Housing Crisis

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Last week, the Government published its new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Most commentators claim that they have squared the circle by protecting the green belt whilst simultaneously giving a presumption in favour of sustainable development.

Yet we know in our hearts that a squared circle is not just oxymoronic and messy, it is physically impossible to achieve. A marriage between the virginal Mistress NIMBY and the rapacious Master Development can only persist if bride, groom and witnesses connive at perpetrating a central deception - that the new NPPF heralds radical reform, when in truth it merely recasts the ossified first rule of British development: thou shalt not build near my garden.

Highly-effective lobbying by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, English Heritage, the National Trust and the RSPB, and the small 'c' conservatism of the three main parties vis-à-vis 'middle England', combine to ensure that under the new planning regime, any new housing must almost exclusively be developed on 'brown field' sites - invariably a mixture of either suburbia-lite, chemical-soaked former industrial sites, or derelict mental asylums. Never in the field of British housing, have so many been squeezed into such cramped dwellings, to protect the garden views and property values of so few.

In Britain, living in spacious accommodation, in a pleasant community, is increasingly the preserve of the well-off. This is largely due to the stupendously high cost of housing, itself a function of lack of supply brought about by our restrictive planning system and obsession with preserving the green belt. It should not be regarded as left wing, or radical to believe that good quality, affordable housing, in either the social or private sector, is just as much a right as health care, legal aid or education. In the Britain of 2012, we can lavish hundreds of millions on a few weeks of sporting events, yet calling for a series of new towns to be built on the green belt, in an attempt to tackle our housing crisis and offer hard-working families the housing they deserve, risks a level of opprobrium reserved for terrorists. This is the logical result of structures of subservience which flow from a millennium-long land grab by privileged elites, and it shames a so-called civilised country such as ours.

Yet with far fewer resources, and facing far greater logistical challenges, people in the West Bank are putting us in this supposed 'advanced' nation to shame. During BICOM's (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre) recent 'new media' delegation to Israel, I had the privilege of visiting Rawabi, the first Palestinian new town in the West Bank. Rawabi is in the early stages of being built in the countryside, atop several hills, and will provide beautifully-designed and constructed apartments, hi-tech workplaces, cultural centres, religious buildings and recreational facilities for up to 40,000 middle class Palestinians. Funded in part by the Qatari Government, Rawabi is a glittering example of what a high-density, yet super-high quality new town of the future looks like.

We in Britain should be turning to Rawabi for guidance. Families and individuals struggling to save for a deposit for a tiny, 'brown field' flat, or waiting into their 40s to reach home-ownership, would look on Rawabi with respectful, envious awe at what is achievable. Achievable with one proviso - that politicians have the guts and vision to make green belt land available.

Political parties should raise their eyes from their collective navels and look to Rawabi for inspiration. In Labour's case, we may already be perilously close to losing the respect of an entire generation of voters because we have failed to respond properly to their legitimate ambition to rent or own high quality homes at affordable prices. While all three major parties have singularly failed to grasp this particular nettle in recent decades, Labour's performance in Government since 1997 was hardly fitting of the party which housed the heroes of the Second World War. Our failure was particularly tragic, given that the parliamentary majorities of the Blair years may well be a thing of the past.

Britain's political elites remain resolutely craven to the powerful vested interests of the 'NIMBY tendency'. To build one, let alone ten 'Rawabis', remains anathema under the new NPPF, as it was under the old. Remember Gordon Brown's 'Eco Towns' anyone? This remains a green and pleasant land for the gilded minority and a cramped, unpleasant land for the hard-pressed majority. Electoral treasures await politicians who address the needs of the latter group - the former can, as they have been doing for centuries, look after themselves. This is a risky path, requiring that control of our green and pleasant land be challenged. I will hazard a guess that a sufficient number of working families would vote for the party offering to build British 'Rawabis', for this risk to be worth taking.