The housing crisis: a nightmare caused by our sanctified suburban dreams

Published in The Guardian (August 21st, 2012)

Another day, another housing report. This time it is Policy Exchange, the prime minister’s favourite thinktank, urging the sale of social housing in more expensive areas and the reinvestment of funds to build more homes. The idea makes sense economically – but living next door to one such house, I would not like to see further stratification of our society. It would not help the country’s cohesion.

As so often with housing, this is sticking plaster politics – dealing with symptoms rather than cause. Be under no illusion as to the scale of the crisis: there are said to be 5 million people waiting on registers, but well under half the number of new homes we need being built. This is ruining life for countless families, squashed into inadequate properties, and paralysing possibilities for a generation in their 20s. It will get worse: last month’s census figures revealed not just a growing population but a baby boom.

This shortfall is why another report last week found average house prices nearly doubling over the last decade and rising three times faster than salaries. They are now approaching eight times average earnings – twice the multiple on which mortgage companies offer. This is not is just a London problem: the 10 places where the affordability gap increased fastest include Basildon, Burnley, Calderdale and Corby.

Little wonder – as Nick Clegg admitted in one of the general election debates – the cost and availability of housing is the issue raised most when politicians leave their ivory towers. Yet the slightest hint of changes to planning legislation sends parliamentarians into panic. This weekend we saw Tory MPs warning they would oppose moves to unpick the planning deadlock, while conservative and liberal newspapers alike, so vocal demanding bold action to revive the economy, prepare fresh campaigns to fight reform.

Despite mostly living in urban areas, Britons adore the bucolic vision of their green and pleasant land, as displayed to the world in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening. Many foreign visitors commented on the lovely touch of wildflower meadows by the stadiums. But while surveys show most voters think more than two-thirds of their country’s surface area has been concreted over, an idea promoted by campaigning green groups, less than one-tenth of England is in urban development and almost half this is gardens and parks.

If we want to resuscitate the moribund economy, we must recognise the impact of our anachronistic planning laws. It is not just that they drive up house prices to unaffordable levels. They reduce quality, with too many flats and smaller properties rather than the family homes most in demand, while shortages of supply increase price volatility, drive up business costs and reduce employment. One study in Reading found the net cost of constraint was 4p in every pound of income for local families.

The coalition tried to tackle this during its initial “Maoist” phase, running into a predictable firestorm of protest led by the country’s most powerful – and most comfortably middle-class – pressure groups. Despite this, ministers cut some red tape and forced through new rules that presume in favour of sustainable development. Now they plan another assault to spur growth, seeking to encourage building on thousands of already-approved sites and drive through more development.

Unfortunately, much like the need to close hospitals to create more community health services for our ageing society, this is one of those issues where everyone wants action but no one is prepared to confront myopic nostalgia. Political constraints mean ministers must nibble around the edges of planning reform when we need perhaps 5m new homes over the next two decades. This leads to mistakes. One reform under discussion is to lift impositions of community benefits on developers; instead, these should be increased to overcome objections from Nimbys while improving services for the old, disabled and poor.

There is a very obvious solution staring us in the face. Nearly half of England’s land is protected. This includes wonderful national parks and important sites of special scientific interest. But the majority is green belt, that sanctified stuff of suburban dreams. It is time to start building on this misnamed land that is constricting our economic – and often environmental – needs.

Established after the war, the bands of green belt restrict supplies of land in cities, forcing developers to push beyond them into the countryside and commuters to travel further to workplaces. Created to prevent urban expansion, they are often far removed from our arcadian visions. Some 60% are given over to intensive farming, the rest encompassing gravel pits, quarries, railway embankments and even parts of Heathrow airport. Meanwhile, playing fields are sold to developers and, as Policy Exchange revealed, London alone lost the equivalent of 22 Hyde Parks in front gardens – often far more biodiverse than pesticide-laden industrial farms.

The best brownfield sites have been built on; many of the rest are exorbitantly expensive or ill-suited to development beyond squeezing in more flats. The four towns with the fastest-growing affordability gap between earnings and prices – Oxford, Cambridge, London and Bournemouth – all have one thing in common: green belt. Freeing up just 1% of green belt could provide space for 300,000 new homes. Instead, outdated planning policies penalise the most successful and productive parts of the country. Do we want to lose more playing fields, see more garden-grabbing, cram more families into the wrong properties, dash more young people’s dreams and watch more landlords get rich at our expense from soaring housing benefit? If not, it is time to send the bulldozers into the green belt.

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