Forest Village #2: Houses and Trees

I will explain the real origin of Forest Village later, but I was prompted to write it down after reading another think-piece about houses and trees, by Mischa Balen, then of the Adam Smith Institute. The article ran in Planning in London Magazine and put forward a neat bit of lateral thinking about how to build lots of houses in the countryside without ‘concreting it over’.

The idea was simple: grant planning permission for 3% of the UK’s 225,000 farms to develop 5% of their land for housing, on the proviso that the remaining 95% of each of those farms was planted with new woodland. In this way, calculated Balen, land for 950,000 new homes would be created along with 130,000 hectares of new woodland – a hefty 11% increase in the UK’s woodland cover. And as an additional bonus, none of those new houses would be visible from any existing homes – they would be in nobody’s ‘back yard’. I found the idea very striking: development and green space, not instead of it. Houses and trees.

The article was quite short and left much unexplored*, most obviously the economics of the plan: would the value created by the small blocks of new housing be enough to offset the loss of productive farmland and the cost of planting the extensive new woodland that would replace it? But there was a more fundamental problem: national strategic planning policy (now as much as then) is essentially urban or at least quasi-urban. It favours larger scale development, planned at relatively high density around existing or new service-centres, in order to reduce the use of the private car for accessing schools, shops and healthcare facilities.

Balen calculated that the average sized development delivered under his plan would be around 140 houses, too small a new hamlet to sustain any services of its own, and most of them would be remote from existing settlements. Under any planning regime which remained pro-urban and anti-car, Balen’s elegant and surprising idea was pretty much a non-starter.

But it left me thinking whether there was a more sustainable way in which houses and trees could co-exist – in a larger, more self-contained Forest Village.

*The Planning in London Article was based on a longer Adam Smith Institute report by Balen, which can be downloaded here.

Next post: Forest Village #3 – The Concept

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