Three suggestions to solve the housing shortage
The MoD is sitting on redundant military bases ripe for house building
When the government announced its intention to simplify and relax the planning system, it knew it was courting trouble. Rural groups and the heritage lobby have been quick to claim that the countryside has been put up for grabs, to quote the National Trust, or at any rate that the proposals would mean more building in places where it is not welcome. The latter, at least, must be true – otherwise there would be no point in the proposals.
But the government's riposte that more homes are needed, and that the places where they are needed most are often those which resist them most fiercely, is also true. With the population booming and house building at its lowest level since the 1920's, this, too, could hardly be otherwise.
Last winter a similar outcry over selling off state-owned forests produced a rapid climbdown by the government. This time round, however, ministers sense that their critics are vulnerable – perhaps more than they realise - to the charge that they don't care about young people struggling to get on the housing ladder, or the need to get the economy growing again.
But even if another U-turn looks unlikely, the problem is not just about where developers want to build; it is also about what they build, and especially how it looks. It is not only in the countryside that we do not like building. We don't much like it in towns or suburbs, and very often not in the cities either. Over the last few decades, we have got ourselves into a vicious circle whereby much modern development – and particularly housing – is so cramped, repetitive and unattractive that it reinforces the prejudice against itself.
Ironically, one of the main reasons for this is that the tight planning restrictions we rely on to protect the environment have driven the price of building land to such astronomical levels that not only are flats, houses and gardens all much smaller than they used to be, but too little money is left over for decent design, materials and finishes.
Another unintended effect of the current system is that it is now so costly and difficult to get permission for new developments, that only the biggest house builders have the resources to manage it. The result is an industry dominated by half a dozen or so big players, who turn out the same depressingly uniform designs up and down the country.
The most effective way to improve the quality and variety of modern housing would be to reduce the dominance of the big developers, and – most important of all – to build at lower densities. The snag, of course, is that this would require releasing more land, which is precisely what the opponents of reform most fear. But there are things that could help square the circle.
First off, the government should reintroduce minimum space standards for new homes, on the lines of the old Parker Morris rules, as Boris Johnson is trying to do in London.
Second, the government should release more of its own land for house building. The MoD, in particular, is sitting on a multitude of semi-redundant military bases, many in the southern half of England where the pressure for new homes is most acute. Between them they account for tens of thousands of acres of brown field land, much of which could be used for low-density housing.
Third, the system should help more people to build their own homes, rather than having to rely on the big developers. In many countries it is normal to buy a serviced plot with planning permission, the utilities, roads etc already in place, and then commission a local firm to build a house to your own specification, but within overall guidelines governing size and appearance.
If councils were told to ensure there is enough serviced land in small plots to provide for at least ten per cent of all new homes, we could have something comparable in this country.
Of course it will take more than these suggestions to solve the housing shortage. But they would make a difference, not only to the number of homes that could be built but also to how people perceive them.
This problem has been festering since the 1980s, and for all that time, the countryside versus development debate has hardly moved one iota. Until both sides accept that resistance to development is as much about quality as quantity, it is hard to see how the impasse will ever be broken. ·
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