Out and Up
Britain requires a housing revolution. The Conservative government should have the stomach for a fight in its heartlands to bring it about.
The government is about to unveil plans to build a million homes by 2020. Many people will feel that they have heard this sort of announcement many times before and it is up to Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, to ensure that it actually happens this time. Ministers are often hawkish about housing development but their talons are blunted by local authorities wary of nimbyism.
Members of parliament are another problem. Last year, it was reported that Gavin Barwell, the housing minister, was himself an ardent opponent of a large development in his Croydon Central constituency. Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative MP, has already warned Mr Javid of conflict within the party after the secretary of state approved building on the green belt in Mr Mitchell’s constituency of Sutton Coldfield. Nobody is immune to these local pressures. In Theresa May’s own backyard of Maidenhead, there is a fight brewing over news that 86 per cent of new homes are to be built on green belt land.
The sacrosanctity of the green belt among Conservatives is illogical and unsustainable. It is often forgotten that the point of a green belt is not that it is green, but that it is a belt. City planners, first in 19th-century Vienna and then in Edwardian London, conceived of the idea as an urban girdle, protecting cities from disfiguring sprawl. Those lucky enough to live in a city’s green fringes today are thus the beneficiaries of policies designed to increase housing density. It is perfectly reasonable that as cities grow, the green girdle should be loosened.
The housing white paper is also expected to permit urban developments to go upwards to the height of their nearest neighbours, possibly abandoning existing restrictions about blocking light. More housing is to be located near train stations and transport hubs. These are often surrounded by large car parks, which would be relocated underground.
It may be that urban Britons simply need to learn to live differently. The dystopian experiences of many residents of 1960s tower blocks have entrenched a taste for low-rise development, along with a peculiarly British belief that every home should have its own roof and its own garden. Yet higher density housing need not scrape the skies. Many European cities, such as Paris, manage to make high-density mid-rise housing thoroughly desirable. The centre of Madrid rarely rises above ten storeys and yet manages to have a higher density of homes than Hong Kong. Even in London, one of the most dense areas of housing is to be found among the plush mansion blocks and exquisite garden squares of Kensington and Chelsea.
A pinch of realism is sadly essential. Mr Javid has a taste for grand policy announcements and housing is a particularly tough nut to crack. Local opposition can spring up from unexpected sources. In 2013, David Cameron’s government was widely lauded for making it easier to convert commercial premises into homes. A few years later, many such developments were fiercely resented for making bland neighbourhoods that once brimmed with life, such as Soho in London.
These tensions have no easy solution. A lack of affordable housing is a key marker of inequality, which itself leads to social disillusionment. People with a stake in the fortunes of their nation also require a place to live in it.
Last month the government announced 200,000 new homes in 17 new towns and villages. More will be needed. Developers must be penalised for hoarding land and brownfield building must be encouraged even when redevelopment is costly. Mr Javid’s proposals are expected to include more flatpack homes. None of these, alone, is the answer to Britain’s housing shortage. All of them, together, just might be.