Sat 26 September 2020

Tom Cordell on why a longer-term strategy of building houses and creating employment in tandem across the UK may be the only way out of the housing crisis.

Like unrepentant communists blaming the Soviet Union’s failure on its lack of ideological purity, the current Conservative Government’s only response to the failures of Britain’s 40-year experiment with free markets, privatisation, and deregulation is to promise to turn Thatcherism up to 11.

Yet, this irrational adherence to failed dogma is a sign of how its position is fundamentally weak. And nowhere is this clearer than in housing policy, where – outside Westminster – a consensus has already been established that Britain needs to tame markets and create new council homes. 

TV architect George Clarke has now joined the debate, demanding that the Government builds 100,000 new council homes each year for the next 30 years. In the hope that our current turmoil is, in fact, the death throes of an intellectually bankrupt political order, it’s time to start planning for the future. So, where we going to fit these three million new homes?

The greatest demand for housing in the UK is in London and the south east, driven by three decades of government policy that has allowed the economy there to overheat, drawing in people from the rest of the UK in search of work. Many point out that London is far less densely populated than most European cities, arguing that the solution is to increase housing densities to create much-needed new homes. The catch is, of course, that this involves demolishing what’s already there, hugely disrupting the lives of the people who are settled.

To complicate matters further, these are the areas with the highest land values, making the cost of buying-up existing housing to demolish it prohibitively expensive. This has been the central reason why many of London’s cash-strapped local authorities have focused on demolishing their existing council housing because, as they own the land, it is effectively free to them. 

But, after more than two decades of this approach, it is undeniable that it is the most vulnerable in society who are bearing the brunt of urban change – and that’s before the huge environmental costs of demolishing and replacing functioning buildings is taken into account. How long can local authorities sustain this increasingly unpopular policy? 

There is a compromise available, as promoted by campaigners such as Architects for Social Housing and others who argue that councils should leave existing homes alone and instead build smaller numbers of new homes on scraps of underused land such as garages. Islington Council is now following a similar approach, but the question remains: what happens when it runs out of sites? Do we then accept the city is built to capacity and, if not, what do we demolish next?

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The Mayor of London’s draft plan for the capital identifies the outer suburbs as the space for housing growth. Will this mean more council tenants being displaced in the rush to hit house-building targets or is there a bolder solution?

Architect James Dunnett suggests that we should demolish some of the privately-owned semis that characterise the suburbs instead, arguing that a site of just four houses, home to 24 people, could be replaced with a tower housing 340. But, can the suburban transport infrastructure cope with an increased population and will politicians dare to scare their suburban voters?

What about building on the greenbelt instead?

There’s a growing lobby which argues that we should build in the ugliest parts of the greenbelt. Incidentally, greenfield sites present the easiest profits for developers. But, this ignores the fact that the primary purpose of the greenbelt was to contain urban sprawl and limit journey times to work, not to preserve rural beauty. With suburban rail routes filled to capacity (and new capacity slow and expensive to provide) it is inevitable that new housing on the fringes of urban areas would cause increased car use. In our age of environmental crisis, is this an acceptable way to plan housing for the future?

Perhaps then we could build on industrial land instead? But, after half a century of deindustrialisation, there’s not much of it left. And, if sites used currently for goods distribution are instead developed for housing, this will result in much longer delivery journeys, with extra pollution and congestion.

The final option is to tackle housing demand at source and disperse employment around the country. It has echoes of the new and expanded towns policy post-World War Two, where employment creation and new housing were planned as one. The ideal is, not to create dormitory towns for the big conurbations, but to create places where communities can live, work and play. This way we could house a future Britain in a way that is also environmentally sustainable.

But, this will only work within a broader, long-term national political project which prioritises an end to regional inequalities. It’s only by dreaming of a better world that we stand any chance of creating one.

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