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Government 'fix' is another brick in the wall for the broken housing market

Building Blocks

Simply adding new layers to existing buildings is no way to solve the housing crisis, says a  – frankly quite annoyed – Chris Shepley

Generations of young Shepleys have amused themselves with bricks. Their second favourite game has always been to pile them on top of one another until they fall over with as loud a noise as possible onto the floor. (Their favourite was to have Dad performing this task for them, and I can say with confidence that Dad got a certain amount of enjoyment from this process too).

Ministers clearly, if subconsciously, recall these events with fondness, and the image of a young Dominic Raab cooing with delight at the collapse of such a pile is an appealing one. So much so that this is apparently the basis of the latest futile bid to solve the housing crisis.

Questions remain about whether the refreshed NPPF goes far enough to ensure that housing is sustainably located and of sufficient quality, quantity and diversity, but it includes the unimaginative wheeze of piling further storeys onto existing buildings. Measures will, we understand, be taken to ensure that these buildings don’t suffer the fate of the aforementioned bricks. The efficacy of some of the building regs was called into question by the appalling Grenfell fire, but hopefully a more cautious approach will be taken this time.

"In a prosperous country, the least everyone deserves is a decent home"

We must assume that problems such as how to get to these upper floors through the existing buildings without inconvenience or risk can be solved, and that there are enough planners to make sure that these additions have a semblance of decent design quality. Both of these may seem unlikely in most circumstances, but nonetheless this measure may well add a useful handful of elevated homes to the stock.

But this column has previously expressed dismay at the mounting pile of gimmicks trumpeted as dealing with the housing crisis but actually making only a small contribution, often with unintended (but predictable) consequences. So far as I know the bold initiative to make it easier to convert launderettes to residential use has so far failed to ease the problems young people have in getting on the housing ladder, but on the plus side students are generally to be found wearing clean socks.

But something more radical is needed; something which deals not just with numbers but also with affordability and quality, and which relates to the needs of a growing and ageing population. The answers are all around us, repeatedly advocated by planners, and contrary to repeated ministerial slander, it is not the planning system which prevents dramatic things happening, but the lack of imagination of successive ministers themselves.

We obviously need a large public sector house building programme, as seen in the time when Labour and Conservative governments competed 50 years ago to see who could build the most. We need land value capture to help pay for this, and to enable new settlements to be created.

We need to bring empty properties into use (by acquisition if necessary) and look at the impacts of things like Airbnb and second homes in certain areas. Fierce measures to make sure rental accommodation is safe, healthy, comfortable, affordable and secure. Self-build, housing cooperatives, better options for the elderly – all these have been advocated recently, but to limited effect.

In answer to criticism, the government issues statements that are masterpieces of complacency, producing various statistics to support their case. But we’ve been told by ministers that government statistics are generally wrong, and the evidence of squalor around us backs this up. We have to be brave, radical, and adventurous. Or do we simply turn our heads and look the other way?1

In 2018, in a prosperous country, the least everybody deserves is a decent home.  

1 Presley, E, In The Ghetto, RCA Victor 1969. A parable for our times

Chris Shepley is the principal of Chris Shepley Planning and a former Chief Planning Inspector

Illustration | Oivind Hovland


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