My first time. You have to start somewhere and I’m beginning with the two big media events on environmental issues over the past week.
As a town planning student in the 1970s I cut my environmental teeth (we didn’t actually have environment back then, we had to make do with geography, but it was sort of the same) on Ian Nairn. Nairn (1930 – 1983) was the subject last week of a BBC 4 documentary “The Man who Fought the Planners” so I should have disliked him but, as an early and hugely passionate critic of bad architecture and planning, he was an iconic figure and his outpourings were an inspiration.
A former RAF pilot – which gave him a distinctive view of the world – he developed “a deep hatred of characterless buildings and places” and is credited with minting the term “subtopia” to describe the area around cities, failed by urban planning and devoid of spirit of place. The titles of his early books, “Outrage: On the Disfigurement of Town and Countryside” and “Counter Attack against Subtopia”, may give a hint of his feelings. Come on Ian, don’t just sit on the fence – tell us what you’re really thinking.
My first Nairn publication would be “Britain’s Changing Towns”, bought with some of my leftover university grant (kids, ask your parents), and displayed a robust approach to the written word. He collaborated with Nikolaus Pevsner on the “Buildings of England” series and Alec Clifton-Taylor pointed out what he saw as the essential difference between Pevsner’s and Nairn’s contributions: “Dr. Pevsner… is inclined to tell us everything about a building except whether it is worth going to see. Mr Nairn, more subjective, occasionally perverse…never leaves us in any doubt about this aspect.”
Nairn was fond of pubs. Too fond, as it transpired, and he died at the age of 52 from cirrhosis of the liver. If you can still catch the programme on On Demand, do so. Mind you, he may have had a great way with the written word, but TV probably wouldn’t cope these days with a presenter who struggled to make eye contact with either the camera or the person he was talking to.
The other great media event? That would be me, being interviewed on Radio Sussex before muesli time on government’s inspired wheeze to allow the owners of unwanted farm buildings to convert them – or even demolish and replace – to new dwellings without the nuisance of having to get planning permission. There may be a need for more housing in rural areas but, surely, of the “affordable” type, providing accommodation for local people, not just top-of–the-range places.
There may be plenty of old barns that could be reasonably converted. The existing planning system generally copes with those by weighing up the possibilities of continuing agricultural activity or other commercial use, and by considering whether the barn was worth saving anyway, and how sensitive the conversion would be, and what about the impact on the neighbourhood? So, government has come up with a solution to a problem we didn’t know we had and suggested that this is just too hard. While you may still need to get planning permission for your house extension, farmers should be allowed to knock up two or three houses in the middle of the countryside without the “red tape”.
Now this is just my opinion, but – and I know I’m right – that’s plain wrong.
At the time of writing there are encouraging noises that this proposed change won’t apply in our national parks so it may only be the rest of the countryside that receives the benefit of this enhancement.
Ian Nairn, where are you when we need you? Ranting remains as essential now as it ever was.