Monday, 15 December 2014

Britain's housing emergency: fighting back will mean warlike measures

Britain is in the throes of a housing emergency. Everyone knows it, in their bones. It's when the stories about London garages and the Greek islands you could buy with the proceeds from your Notting Hill flat begin to appear that the dark clouds truly start building up on the horizon. They're there again. You just need to know where to look. And this time, with the banking system still in convalescence and real wages stagnating, those storm clouds look black indeed.

You might be young and unable to buy a house. Or stuffed in a tiny little box of a flat when you would like a house for your two young children. Or, alternatively, you might be middle-aged and fairly comfortably off, thank you very much. In which case, we could ask you this: if you live south of Birmingham, where exactly are your children going to live? And your carers, when you grow too old and infirm, as you near the ripe old age of 90 or 100, to look after yourself? If you imagine that they're going to live on an average wages south of £30,000 a year, when a nice house in (say) Bristol might cost £300,000, then, reader, you've got another think coming.

Britain doesn't build enough houses. Nowhere near enough. We need about 250,000 more dwellings every year just to keep up with household formation and population growth. We build a laughable 100,000 to 125,000. You don't need to know anything else. That's the story in two numbers - a tragedy that is making homeowners very rich indeed, as prices soar, and leaving everyone else locked out of the whole game as the number of homeowners gently falls and falls.

We're not going to get anywhere with this problem unless we start treating it like a wartime emergency. Forget today's Prime Ministerial announcement of more help for the under-40s. That's just pouring more petrol on the fire: something that's in many essentials been announced before, and another policy (like Help to Buy) that will have historians scratching their heads for decades to come at Ministers mendacity and self-delusion. Forget sweetners like better access to mortgages, or easier terms. Interest rates only go one way from here - upwards - and unless we build more, that will either cause a massive housing crash or push even more young people out of the market. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Londoners remain in expensive temporary accommodation, looking to build up their points so that one day, one day, they might be able to move into a really small flat. Camden has maybe 25,000 people on its housing list. It pushes maybe 20 flats a week up onto its website for rent. We can't go on like this.

Now Britain doesn't have an entirely happy history of state-driven (but privately-executed) housing drives. The Attlee govenrment's promises turned to dust amidst austerity and a dollar shortage. The Wilson government's 500,000-homes-a-year target had to be abandoned as it overheated the economy. But Harold Macmillan's record as Minister of Housing in the early 1950s (above), when he bent every lever of state and business power to the end of reaching a 300,000 per annum homes target, is a good example of what might and can be done. If the will existed to face down land-banking developers, local 'not in my back yard' conservatives and the vested interests of homeowners afloat on the increasing value of their main asset. Macmillan's methods were simple: ramp up building in every sector. More council houses, funded by borrowing and central government subsidy. More New Towns. More road building and land drainage. More improvement. Grants for better amenities and home expansion. And so on.

The truth is that we need to do all these things, and more. Probably much more. We might have to build on defence land, school fields, in shops and derelict commercial and industrial sites that the owners aren't using. In wedges on the Green Belt. Everywhere. Now. Today. Our housing disaster area requires big thinking, of the type that Public Policy and the Past has recommended again and again. Governments must declare large parts of southern England emergency areas: both green and brown-field sites should be fast-tracked immediately for the construction of brand new towns linked to older transport links via whole new 'light and fast' public transport grids.

Developers would be told: meet these transport, water and electricity standards, and then you can go for your lives. If they won't do it, then the state must - reviving a New Town tradition that has for too long fallen into abeyance, only recently being resurrected in (very shadowy) form via the Chief Secretary to the Treasury's controversial threat to direct targeted housebuilding schemes from Downing Street.

Building a few houses at Ebbesfleet and Bicester just won't meet the case. It's a pathetic, pitifully inadequate, indeed embarrasingly lightweight response to a clear and present danger to our entire prosperity and social structure. Less than 30,000 houses, which is all that those two developments will deliver? About six weeks of our housing requirements. Think of it like that and you begin to perceive the true scale of our predicament. If you don't like the changes required to get us out of this, you can go and tell all those families in inner London bed and breakfasts that you've just stamped all over their children's futures. Good luck with that.

Such radical measures might sometimes be hard to take. They would fundamentally change the shape and feel of southern England. They would make it feel more like the built-up and more crowded Netherlands. But you know what? There is now no alternative if British society is to hold together at all. It's that simple.