Going round the houses

As more and more forgo the dream of owning their own house and politicians pledge to build more to fix the crisis, Stephen McKenna, Green World Editorial Board, plots an alternative way out

Stephen McKenna

Since the end of the Second World War, development in Britain has been controlled by a comprehensive system of land-use planning, which has successfully provided the housing we need whilst preventing developers from urbanising our countryside. The post-war legislation was integrated with public health to improve conditions for ordinary people in our towns and cities.

The 1960s and 1970s were the heyday of the planning system, with major public investment in 'new towns' like Milton Keynes, which provided new employment opportunities and a remarkably high quality of life. It's worth noting that with a planning system in place we managed to reach a peak of building 300,000 homes a year in the 1950s, half of this being council housing. Imagine that, at a time when the country was essentially broke. And yet today, although much more prosperous as a nation, we have a major housing crisis. What is going on?

Firstly, we should recognise how the developers and their lobbyists are fomenting the idea that the housing crisis is down to a lack of housing and that we should build more. In fact, it is low interest rates, driving investor demand for houses, yielding higher rents and pushing up price to income ratios, that are pricing so many out of the housing market, as well as a disproportionate focus on infrastructure development in the South East.

The view that we need to build more houses has taken hold at the heart of Conservative policy, as seen in the recent Dunsfold Aerodrome decision to approve thousands of homes in the Surrey countryside, and is a position supported by Labour.

The reality is that building more homes is not the answer to our housing crisis. Since 1996, over 4.2 million homes have been built, which is greater than the growth in the number of households (collectively, all the people that live in a given house), even in London. Government has admitted that even if we got back to the high levels of new homes per annum last seen inthe mid-1950s, this would only cut house prices by 5-10 per cent, which would hardly resolve the problem. If the current myth is perpetuated, we could lose our countryside and still have a housing crisis! So, what can be done? What might a Green housing policy look like?

As London's population is predicted to rise by at least three million by 2030, and as the South East's economy races even further ahead, the crisis will become more acute. And infrastructure plans will only reinforce this trend. Crossrail 1 has been one of the biggest construction projects in Europe and Transport for London are planning for several more schemes. Following decades of relative decline, the economic imbalance in the country desperately needs to be tackled to reverse falling population and investment levels. A national plan to increase investment in the North would draw population there and make it more viable. 100,000 new families in the North could spend over £2-3 billion per annum in a local urban economy, easing strains on the South East in doing so.

Financially easing the burden on key workers and families is essential if the NHS and other services are to keep running. Although private landlords are often the last resort for social renting, funded by housing benefit, the system would be better serviced by building or leasing affordable homes at a social rent rate, and this should be taken on by the public sector. Sites that are available should be purchased under compulsory purchase powers by councils rather than letting developers buy land and avoid affordable provision using the viability loophole.

For younger people, greater live/work space provision should be enabled under planning and, of course, more densification close to public transport hubs is essential.

Finding a resolution to our current housing crisis requires a more nuanced approach than simply building more houses, taking into account regional economic and infrastructural imbalances in an attempt to understand that the current crisis is the result of more than just a shortage of houses. We must move away from fuelling unsustainable growth in the South East and look to establish a coherent, inclusive house-building strategy for the whole of the UK, not just as an overspill for London.