November 13, 2013 5:27 pm

Radical state action is the answer to Britain’s housing crisis

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Government needs to become engaged in building communities again, says Andrew Adonis

The heart of Britain’s housing and growth crisis is the failure to build anywhere near enough homes to meet the rise in population and households.

This is especially true in London, whose population has risen by nearly 2m in the past 20 years and is projected to rise by another 1m in little more than a decade. Boris Johnson, the city’s mayor, has set himself an annual target of 40,000 new homes. But last year barely 18,000 were completed. Independent experts suggest the target ought to be about 60,000. This largely explains why the average house price in the capital is heading north of £500,000.

Nationally, the crisis is as severe as in the early 1950s, when Harold Macmillan, then housing minister, pledged to build 300,000 homes a year. Yet today’s build rate is less than half that, and at its lowest level since the 1920s.

An acute analysis comes in a new book, Good Cities, Better Lives, by Sir Peter Hall. The eminent urban planner describes a double crisis. The first entails a collapse in the building of social housing by local authorities and registered social landlords in the late 1970s and 1980s, neither reversed thereafter nor replaced by a sustained rise in private building. The second was a collapse in private building after the 2008 crash. Before this, the number of completions peaked at 426,000 in 1968; it has never reached even half that figure in the past 25 years.

Reinforcing this was the state’s withdrawal from a central role in planning new settlements. The postwar new towns, begun under Prime Minister Clement Attlee, were mostly a success. Those around London have a combined population of 1.5m. In employment and average earnings, they exceed the national average. Yet in 40 years no big urban development has been built except London Docklands – the vision of Michael Heseltine, a Conservative minister who resisted the “do nothing and leave it to the market” tide. He has been proved right.

Sir Peter, who advised Lord Heseltine, deserves attention. His message is that the state – national and local – must resume its responsibilities. It is not enough to exhort the market and fiddle with planning. The state must engage once more in building communities – including new towns, extensions to existing towns and cities, and a radically improved approach to transport investment linking infrastructure to new housing.

Sir Peter hails the Dutch Vinex programme, through which central government achieved agreements with local authorities that generated 455,000 homes between 1996 and 2005. This followed the 1991 Vinex report, a national spatial strategy in the mould of the 1944 Abercrombie plan for postwar London, which gave rise to the new towns. The success of Vinex was not simply a function of state action. “The houses had to be in the right places,” writes Sir Peter, “close to existing cities ... above all in the heart of the Randstad [the region incorporating Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague], and also to minimise travel to cities and secure maximum use of public transport, walking and bicycles.” The UK government promised a paper on new towns two years ago – Prime Minister David Cameron cited garden cities as a model – but it has not yet been published.

A serious problem in England is the weakness of local government – although London, which has had a mayoralty since 2000, is a partial exception. At present, even local authorities’ borrowing against their own assets and income to build houses is tightly constrained. “Free the cities from the dead hand of the Treasury and fundamentally decentralise the structure of government,” writes Sir Peter. Lord Heseltine, too, has been saying this for decades.

Towns and cities with credible plans to expand should be enabled to do so. The council of the first postwar new town – Stevenage in Hertfordshire – supports a 16,000-home extension, ideally located for jobs and growth. But it is held back by a lack of government support in the face of Nimby opposition from neighbouring rural councils. The government should strongly support Stevenage and others like it.

“The models are there before our eyes,” says Sir Peter. “We merely need to remove the blinkers that are obscuring them and to clear our minds for forging fresh solutions.” And we need to start now.

The writer is shadow infrastructure minister and was transport secretary in the last UK government


Letter in response to this article:

Government has too much power over planning / From Mr Deri Hughes

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