Housing: The hidden crisis
Britain is in the grips of a housing crisis. In the long term, its impact on Britain’s political scene and social reality may well be greater than that of Brexit. Botching Brexit may fell the current government; but failing to resolve the housing crisis will make the Tories unelectable for decades to come. This is especially true in the South-East (and London in particular), where affordability is lowest – and resentment and disillusionment greatest. The prospect of buying one’s own house has, for many young Londoners, receded into the realm of fantasy.
Yet the scale of the crisis is not unprecedented. After the Great War, millions of men who had fought in the trenches returned home to overcrowded, inadequate – and, in more than 80% of cases, privately rented – homes. Lloyd George’s ambition to build ‘homes for heroes’ was wholeheartedly embraced by subsequent Conservative governments and enterprising homebuilders alike. The result: between 1925 and 1938, more than 200,000 homes were built every year. It is with reason that inter-war semis remain so powerful a symbol of English suburbia; there are more than a million of them.
Worse still was the situation after World War 2. Combined, the five years of war-imposed stagnation and the Blitz had wrought havoc on Britain’s housing stock – and though some reconstruction had begun under Attlee, the situation remained dire even in 1950. Recognising this, Churchill made the Tory promise to build 300,000 homes a year a central part of his election campaign – and won. The promise was maintained; by 1954, a million new homes had been built. Indeed, the building boom did not subside until the 1970s – reaching in fact an historic high in 1968, when 350,000 new flats and houses were built in a single year.
In both cases, the exceptional speed and magnitude of development led to mistakes: the house-building boom of the 20s and 30s took place at the expense of the open land surrounding our major cities. Sleepy rural towns became, within a few years, bustling satellites of the cities they had always held at arm’s length. London’s suburbs especially grew virtually uncontrolled. Private companies, the Metropolitan Railway in primis, built railway lines into open country first – and houses within easy reach of these lines second. The allure of quiet suburban living was irresistible: it meant being, as Betjeman wrote, ‘a city clerk turned countryman again / and linked to the metropolis by train’.
Yet in the long term, this indiscriminate, low-density development was environmentally, socially, and economically disastrous. From drainage problems to social isolation, from the over-use of transport networks to the ‘urban heat island’ effect, the problems of suburban sprawl are many – and, for the most part, well understood now.
Even better known, of course, are the issues facing many post-1945 housing estates. Badly-built and -maintained tower blocks quickly became ‘high-rise hells’; large-panel prefabrication systems, used during the 1960s for over 25% of new builds, turned out (tragically, at Ronan Point) to be unfit for purpose; and the monotonous, maze-like design of many schemes fostered isolation, resentment, and crime.
We cannot afford to make these mistakes – either of excessive land consumption or of insufficient attention to quality – again. To prevent the first error, there is already legislation in place: the Metropolitan Green Belt was established precisely to curb the land-consuming excesses of interwar housebuilding. Building on it now should remain a last resort; presumption should be against, rather than in favour of it. It is true, as proponents of a de-facto abolition of the Green Belt have pointed out, that some sections of London’s Green Belt are in a pitiful state. Yet this, far from being a good reason for its abolition, ought to be a rallying cry for its improvement. What other green space is there in Britain that is so large and yet so easily accessible by so many? Where if not here, within easy reach of ten million people, should we endeavour to make England’s pleasant pastures seen?
But improving the Green Belt requires funds that local governments simply haven’t got. Developers, on the other hand, do. The most promising way forward, then, would be selectively to release small, strategically less important parts of the Green Belt for developments in exchange for the improvement of surrounding land. This would not be unprecedented: various infrastructure projects, from the Northern Line extension to the re-building of Bank station, are already now part-funded by developers keen on building nearby.
There is no reason to think that a similar framework would not work in the Green Belt; developers wishing to build on protected land could be required to contribute financially, for example, to the construction of a public park, the deculverting of a river, or the creation and maintenance of community facilities. This would be fully in the spirit of Green Belt legislation, whose chief aim it was to create usable green spaces around London. It would also, in simple quantitative terms, go a long way towards easing the housing crisis; within the Green Belt, there is land sufficient to build a million homes within 40 minutes of Central London by train or Tube. Releasing even a small part of this would go a long way towards solving, at least quantitatively, the housing shortage in the South-East.
Yet the housing crisis is not simply about quantity. It is about the quality of homes, too. New developments are often built at too high a density, with too many flats or houses crammed into too small a space. Conversely, promised amenities for residents – from gyms to schools to transport links – can take years to become realities; ‘Barking Reach’ and ‘Greenwich Peninsula’ docent.
There is no easy solution to this: larger floorplans and better amenities improve residents’ quality of life – but also increase the scale and cost of developments. The provision of affordable housing and the integration of developments into the local landscape are two of the largest hurdles faced by developers; complaints about the quality of new homes have, conversely, not seriously impacted the willingness of buyers to buy them.
The market, in other words, provides developers with little incentive to build larger, better, more functional homes; such an incentive, then, must come, in some form, from the government. It is in everybody’s interest that new homes be built to last the test of time in terms not only of build quality, but of space standards and internal layout; let us not repeat the mistakes of bygone decades, when new developments were all too often very poorly built – and all the more quickly demolished. It is imperative that this not happen to this new generation of homes. Government guidelines along the lines of the former Parker-Morris standards should be debated, established, and backed up by financial incentives for those developers that follow them.
The government should continue to push for more homes to be built. But if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past, quantity cannot be our only concern, nor the number of homes built our only yardstick. We must work to preserve Britain’s great outdoors by maintaining, and improving, the Green Belt. We must not allow the new-builds of to-day to become the slums of tomorrow.