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Housing: Where will we all live?

Words: Roger Milne
A house on an island

It’s a given that we need more houses to cope with increasing demand and to take the heat out of what most see as an overhyped and near-delirious property market.

But simply saying that we need more houses is a far cry from working out the best way to actually deliver them, particularly on the scale that’s required. If most experts are to be believed, we’re in need of approximately 200,000 new houses per year until 2030.
And that’s just to cater to demand. 
So why are we in this state and how do we provide the housing the nation needs? According to BBC home affairs editor Mark Easton, there were 495,000 houses built in the postwar boom year of 1948. Housebuilding continued at a similar level throughout the 50s and 60s. In 2013, there were 109,000 homes built.
“In 2010, we saw a 60 per cent decrease in capital expenditure on housing as part of the comprehensive spending review,” the National Housing Federation’s head of policy Rachel Fisher told an audience at the recording of Radio 4's ‘Where will we all live?’ debate at the LSE on Monday night. “And there was no public outcry.”
While the panelists agreed that we have quite simply built far too few houses over the last 25-30 years, they could not agree on how we should fix that problem.
In the blue corner, John Stewart, director of economic affairs at the Home Builders Federation. Stewart attacked the planning system persistently for its rigidity, which prevented housebuilders from building freely and quickly. Not only were they prescribing shades of paint and types of doorknob, but they were also far too slow to release land for building.
“Local authorities have control of the land that’s released,” Stewart insisted. “If there were more sites, there would be more housing.  If we build more houses that would help bring house prices down.”
Given their heads, housebuilders would be building around 75 per cent of the homes we need, he said, scoffing at suggestions that the developers were profiteering through landbanking and monopolies.
In the red corner, designer and chair of Building for Life, Wayne Hemingway, whose accusations prompted outraged reaction from Stewart. For Hemingway, housebuilding was bound up with social justice – it was the 65 per cent who own their own homes locking the economic gates against the 35 per cent who don’t and reaping the rewards while others suffer. Where’s the incentive to change a system that appears to make so many people so much money?
“It’s counter-productive to a balanced society that you buy something on credit and it makes you money while you sit back and do nowt,” spluttered an outraged Hemingway. The only solution was to “massively increase supply” and “get political”.
house in a  forest
In the green corner, emeritus professor of economic geography at the LSE Paul Cheshire, an increasingly notorious voice in the housing debate. We need to rethink our designations of greenfield, brownfield and green belt, he calmly pointed out, because the designation frequently sits at odds with the actual quality and character of the land.
“We have a completely mythical view of what the green belt is like,” he noted. “We have oceans and oceans and oceans of green belt land which has got almost no environmental value whatsoever – far more than we need to solve our housing problems.”
By taking a more pragmatic view of land quality, we would find the space to build around existing infrastructure. Three Crossrail stations are going to be built in areas of green belt he said, and none will be accompanied by new housing because… it’s green belt. That, he implied, is just dumb.
house on a cliff
Somewhere between these poles sat Rachel Fisher and the London’s deputy mayor for housing, Richard Blakeway, who both suggested practical changes for rental and purchasing that would make housing much more accessible and secure to those on low and average incomes.
Blakeway recommended greater use of shared ownership schemes, as well as building on London’s brownfield (much of which would need cleaning up first). Fisher saw substantial reform of rental agreements to enable long-term leases a one answer to housing insecurity for large numbers of people who could not afford to buy. We should be looking to the continent for examples, she said.
We should also be taking a much strategic and integrated view of housebuilding, she said. “How do we link economic development with job creation with housing? It’s very difficult to do that when we don’t have a national plan, a strategy for linking jobs, housebuilding, infrastructure development…”
All agreed that the planning system needed some measure of reform. For Cheshire it was simple – be clear about land use, simplify the application process and take the confrontation out. “We have system of planning that encourages confrontation. Everything is a challenge and a counter-challenge.”
At the end of the discussion, Easton asked the audience to say ‘Yes’ if they felt the government was doing enough to solve Britain’s housing crisis.
He was met with silence.
'Housing: Where will we all live?' will be broadcast at 8pm on Radio 4 on Wednesday 11 June and repeated at 10.15pm on Saturday 14 June.