Battle in Print: The New Jerusalem - built on a house of cards?

David Clements

In July, ahead of the Queen’s speech and the housing green paper, the newly-installed prime minister Gordon Brown announced with great fanfare that three million new homes would be built by 2020. This comes not a moment too soon. It is projected that in less than 10 years the average house will cost 10 times the average salary. Half of first-time buyers depend on financial help from family and friends to get on the first rung of the housing ladder.

This is at least in part attributed to the pressures on the market as demand massively outstrips the existing housing stock. The government’s own figures predict that there will be 223,000 new households formed each year up to 2026. Back when the target of houses to build per year was 200,000 (it is now 240,000) the minister for housing, Yvette Cooper, acknowledged that that figure ‘remains modest compared to what our predecessors achieved’.

‘There’s a growing consensus about what must be done’, intoned Cooper. ‘To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it’s about building more homes, stupid.’ And yet, the government’s housing strategy looks increasingly desperate. The annual rate of house-building has actually fallen over the last year to 173,400. As a consequence, there is a palpable sense of panic. Brown even convened an ‘emergency summit’ with house-builders, local authorities and housing associations.

Brown’s claim that his ‘government [is] on the side of people with aspirations’ is only credible in as far as the housing horizons of the opposition parties, and critics across the political spectrum, are even lower. Instead of trying to solve the problem, most contributors to the debate are apparently content to sling mud at their opposite numbers - the planner at the developer, the minister at the ‘selfish NIMBY’, the social housing bureaucrat at the ‘greedy’ landlords, and so on and so forth.

The blame game

Providing a clear example of such petulance was chief executive of the National Housing Federation David Orr. Though recognising that housing need cannot be met by ‘building only in cities’, Orr complained that the countryside has become the ‘preserve of the rich, dormitories for commuters and second home-owners’. Orr also blames landlords for keeping 500,000 rental properties empty and ‘excessive City bonuses’ for pricing first-time buyers out of the market. All this might seem entirely fair - but only if we forget for a moment that he represents providers of social housing who surely bear some responsibility for demanding more homes. As well as being evasive, Orr’s attitude is indicative of calls for a ‘levelling down’ in society.

The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has also gone on the offensive. As well as accusing those home owners who treat their houses as an investment of stoking the overheating housing market, it argues that there is more to the housing crisis than simply ‘releasing land’ for developers to build on. House builders are accused of holding on to land in the hope that prices will rise still further.

On their part, the Home Builders’ Federation predictably deny that they are blocking the development of affordable homes by hoarding land. Interestingly, they would rather call their critics’ bluff by stating their commitment to ‘providing sufficient housing to meet all requirements across the market’. That at least sounds like a move in the right direction. Indeed, the wrongheaded notion that planning is about the promotion of ‘a sense of community’, rather than figuring out how best to meet the nation’s need for more houses, actually makes the developers a force for progress. 

Social housing

There are around three million council tenants with a further 1.6m waiting to join them. There are plans to build 70,000 affordable homes (45,000 of which would be social housing and 25,000 shared ownership) every year until 2016. Despite a big increase in the rate at which they are being built, only 30,000 units of social housing are going up each year at the moment. So those on the council lists could be waiting a little while longer. According to Alan Walter of the Defend Council Housing campaign, ‘millions of people are voting with their feet for council housing’. The fact that this amounts to less than one in five of us suggests that most people would rather own their own homes, and there is little reason to believe that this is going to change.

Lynsey Hanley, author of Estates: An Intimate History and one of the more passionate advocates of a revival of social housing, disagrees: the dramatic fall-off in the numbers living in homes provided by local authorities and housing associations is to be regretted. Hanley longs to turn back the clock to the golden age of welfarism when, according to her, society was more just and less divided. For Hanley, 1979 represents not the pivotal moment in the demise of the British Left with the election of Margaret Thatcher, with living standards under attack and the divisions in society brought to the surface. Rather it is the year when the proportion of people living in council housing (40 per cent) was at its highest. People may have been poorer but at least they were more equal. From this point of view, the residualisation of social housing is not a measure of how far we have come but rather an indicator of what we have lost as a society. 

Hanley is nostalgic for the time when securing a tenancy was an end in itself. But is that a worthy aspiration for the rest of us a quarter of a century later? Hanley personifies a debate that refuses to move on. I too find our obsession with buying and refurbishing houses, and its popular expression in countless TV shows, less than inspiring (even if I, to a very limited extent, share such aspirations myself). This phenomenon is, arguably, just a sad feature of a culture that has lost any wider political visions of what the good life might look like. Hanley might, however, be onto something when she decries how, instead of chatting to neighbours over the garden fence, we ‘scurry about, disappearing into the comfort of our homes, because what’s outside feels broken-down’. Staying in appears to be the new going out at a time when people feel anxious and public life seems to mean little.

Hanley, however, is not really suggesting that we should be doing something more interesting instead. Her belief that houses are a ‘fundamental part of our psychological make-up’ is itself a symptom of that same malaise and withdrawal into personal life. The impact of bad housing on wellbeing and ‘parity of esteem’ means that tenants are not only poor but they feel stigmatised too. She agrees with the planners that housing is not about building houses as such, but about building communities that might heal these social ills. That is why she disparages the concrete tower blocks that went up in the 1960s and 1970s as disasters. Whatever one may think of ‘high-rise living’ and its alleged psychosocial impacts, there is surely something to be said for having high-rise ambitions.

‘If this is paradise I wish I had a lawnmower’ (Nothing but flowers, Talking Heads, 1988)

Unfortunately, not only are the Hanleys of this world telling us not to build upwards, but the prevailing orthodoxy is that we shouldn’t build outwards either! So where are they going to put these new houses? Two-thirds of the proposed three million houses will be built on brownfield.

By 2016, all homes will be zero-carbon, according to Gordon Brown. What are we to make of this? Well, there won’t be enough houses, but those that will be built will be ‘green’. The government has backtracked on its bullying of local authorities into relinquishing their diminishing housing stocks. The latter are now to be given the lead in solving the housing crisis, finding pockets of public land on which to build ‘sustainable homes’. The government itself has apparently found plots on which to build 100,000 affordable homes in five proposed ‘eco-towns’. That is still plenty short of three million.

Half of them are proposed for the infamous Thames Gateway, with other developments proposed for the south-east. According to the Guardian‘s environment editor, John Vidal, these new homes could precipitate an ‘environmental crisis’. Billions would need to be spent to ensure that the dirty water generated by these new settlements doesn’t pollute rivers and coasts. The waste will apparently be ‘unmanageable’, the water supplies inadequate, and money will have to be spent on protecting the 100,000 new homes built on flood plains. And so? Let’s get on with building the necessary infrastructure!

The reaction to the Planning White Paper published on the sixtieth anniversary of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act (which gave us the green belt) was similarly hysterical. The mere hint that the greenbelt might be loosened a little was met with outrage (and the idea subsequently rejected). Ironically, the idea of ‘piling on population’ at the fringes of existing urban areas was originally devised so as to avoid having to build developments further afield (thereby cutting all the associated carbon expelled by commuters as they travelled to and from the metropolis).

One proposal that did survive from the White Paper was to make it easier for people to attach renewable energy technologies to their homes. To date, the domestic solar panels and wind turbines subsidised by the Department of Trade and Industry’s low carbon buildings programme (LCBP) have been selling like hot cakes. But all this has little to do with housing policy per se and only serves to give a sense of how confused the rationale for housing policy has become. Similarly, a parliamentary committee recently concluded that despite the absence of any evidence linking power lines to childhood leukaemia, they would nevertheless recommend that homes be built no nearer than 60 metres away - another headache for the planners. Such a decision to ‘err on the side of caution’ can only slow things down further.

Designs on modern life?

There is a separate but linked discussion about ‘better design for better homes’ which inevitably revolves around ‘green’ concerns. But we should not be distracted by it. That discussion is (at least in part) a pre-emptive apology on behalf of the architects of the ‘low-carbon’ cities into which we will be squeezed. Much talk about architecture and the built environment seems to bring out the elitist prejudices of those who simply don’t like the modern world. As one critic puts it, ‘if much of modern life is rubbish, it is not surprising that much modern housing is too’.

Jonathan Glancey, architecture critic at the Guardian, thinks flooding and global warming are the fault of the ‘artless’ suburban masses, or at least those who refuse to keep them in their place:

In any case, sprawling new estates are a part of the very problem of global warming ... Here the car is king. These gormless, supermarket-bound developments are gas guzzlers, contributors to global warming, yet useless when the floods invade their artless cul-de-sacs.


These and other contemporary prejudices and anxieties lie beneath the surface of the housing debate. They only serve to further inhibit a needs-led and rational housing policy. In addition to the problems experienced ‘out there’ by first-time buyers and others struggling to find somewhere to live, the political elite is hoping to solve its existential crisis by finding some way to connect with voters. But the policy formulations that have emerged so far suggest it is bereft of ideas and intent on conforming to orthodoxies that not only stifle the house-building programme, but are very much of its own making. The prospect of the halfway houses of ‘shared equity’, ‘shared ownership’ and the ‘right to own’ (as opposed to ‘buy’), for instance, make the old Tory visions of a home-owning democracy of the 1950s and the 1980s seem almost inspiring. Those shaping housing policy need to stop backing themselves into a corner, and realise that the only way they are going to solve the housing problem is by challenging all the old assumptions.

David Clements is a policy adviser in children’s social care and a writer on social policy. His writing has featured in publications including Guardian Unlimited, Community Care, Architects’ Journal, Prospect, spiked and Culture Wars. He is a contributor to the forthcoming book entitled The Future of Community: Reports of a Death Greatly Exaggerated.

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