At the height of the crisis in the European periphery, Simon Wolfson offered £250,000 in prize money to concentrate minds on something that officials were insisting could never happen – a partial break-up of the eurozone. Now the Conservative peer is inducing beady-eyed economists to shift their gaze to Britain’s housing shortage, offering a reward for the best vision for a new garden city.
The dearth of housing in the UK is a serious social ill. Renters struggle to accumulate wealth while in hock to landlords. Housing costs are a brake on social mobility, making it hard for aspiring professionals from modest backgrounds to gain experience at coveted London employers.
Lord Wolfson rightly concludes that a huge increase in supply would be required to alleviate the crisis. Britain’s stringent planning laws are often blamed for the sluggish pace of construction, which over the past decade created one new home for every two people added to the country’s population.
A bonfire of red tape would give developers a free hand to pursue piecemeal projects. Yet millions of new houses need to be built over the next decade. New transport links will be required to connect them to existing economic centres; schools and hospitals will have to be expanded to accommodate the newcomers. Only the government can orchestrate development on the required scale.
The grand schemes of city planners have met with mixed success. Many of the towns built after the second world war have proved unpopular. State-sponsored efforts to transplant established industries into the embryonic towns generally proved disastrous.
Three decades after public housing construction came to a virtual halt, the government must once again assume a leading role in shaping the contours of urban Britain. Having abandoned its role as landlord to the poor, its task is to oversee the creation of self-sustaining communities in which people want to live.
It is to be hoped that the Wolfson prize will spur creative thinking about how to accomplish this difficult task. However, “garden cities” – self-contained developments built on greenfield sites – may not be the best solution. Allowing existing cities such as London to expand into the greenbelt would expand access to existing centres of commerce and culture. Entrants should try to persuade the judges that they have the best answer to a better question than the one Lord Wolfson has posed.