Ian Abley Gordon Brown might be competing with David Cameron for eco-gimmicks, but they are deluded if they really think that building a few model towns represents a housing policy
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1. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, United Nations, World Population to 2300, New York, UN, 2004, posted on, accessed 21.10.04

2. Kate Barker, Introduction, Barker Review of Land Use Planning: Interim Report – Analysis, London, HMSO, 2006

3. Bill Bryson, Untitled, President's Speech at the CPRE Annual General Meeting, 9 July 2007, posted on, accessed 11.07.07

4. Ian Abley, Let go Mr and Mrs Balls, because here comes Superbia , 22 September 2006, posted on

5. John Ward , 'Average house price to reach £200,000 by end of 2008', Forecasting Eye, Centre for Economics and Business Research, 2 May 2007, posted on, accessed 02.05.07

6. Royal Institute of British Architects, Better Homes and Neighbourhoods, July 2007, posted on, accessed 10.07.07

7. James Heartfield, Let's Build! - Why we need five million new homes in the next 10 years. London, audacity, 2006

8. Housing dominates Brown's agenda, BBC News, 11 July 2007, posted on, accessed 12.07.07

9. Communities and Local Government Housing Statistics, Live Tables, Table 209 Housebuilding: permanent dwellings completed, by tenure and country, accessed 13.07.07

10. Yosuke Hirayama and Richard Ronald, editors, Housing and Social Transition in Japan, London, Routledge, 2007

11. Gordon Brown, Moving Britain Forward: Selected Speeches 1997-2006, London, Bloomsbury, 2006

12. Richard Rogers and Anne Power, Cities for a small country, London, Faber and Faber, 2000

13. Urban Task Force, Towards an Urban Renaissance - Final Report of the Urban Task Force, London, Spon Press, 1999, Lord Rogers of Riverside, chairman

14. Peter Hall, The Land Fetish, London, Town and Country Planning Association, 2005

15. James Heartfield, 'Who’s to blame for crazy house prices?', spiked! online, 11 July 2007, accessed 13.07.07

16. Peter Hall, Ray Thomas, Harry Gracey and Roy Drewett, The Containment of Urban England, Volume 2, The Planning System: Objectives, Operations, Impacts, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1973

17. Martin Pawley, Home Ownership, London, Architectural Press, 1978

18. Kelvin MacDonald and Andrew Kliman, Opening up the Debate: Exploring housing land supply myths, London, Royal Town Planning Institute, June 2007, posted on, accessed 30.06.07

Manmade Modular Megastructures Homes 2016Why is construction so backward?Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age

Blowhard Brown and the eco-towns of Little Britain

Britain is less than 1% of the World's population, (1) and the vast majority of about 60 million British live contained in less than 10% of the country. (2) Bill Bryson, the new presidential face at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, thinks that the social containment exercise, better known as "planning", is a great British achievement. He wants to turn 100% of England, if not Little Britain, into a park. He loves the strange statistical idea that '... of all the surface area of the Earth, only a tiny fragment - 0.0174069 per cent, or so I gather – can call itself Great Britain. So it’s rare and dangerously finite and every bit of it should be cherished.' (3)

While the 90% of non-urbanised Britain is "cherished" by many as countryside, the urbanised parts where we all live and work are certainly valued. There is obviously more valuable property in Britain than privately owned housing, which totals more than 18.2 million homes, or about 70% of the total stock of nearly 26 million houses and flats. However those private homes were collectively valued at £3.5 trillion in 2005, are surely approaching £4 trillion in value, which "secures" about £1 trillion of mortgage debt. A volume of mortgage debt unevenly shared, almost equivalent to GDP. (4)

clickLet go Mr and Mrs Balls, because here comes Superbia (September 2006) 685KB

The Centre for Economics and Business Research seem to underestimate the collective valuation when they say the average price of housing in Britain is expected to surpass £200,000 by 2008. Though they rightly see that interest rates are set to continue to rise. (5) That valuation is almost regardless of the small floor areas of British housing, with little or no garden space, most recently recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects. It hardly seems to matter either that the ageing housing stock needs a lot of laborious repair.

However the RIBA have got themselves a little confused, and have not looked at the need for new and replacement housing. They say that the UK’s existing housing stock is being replaced at a rate approaching 1% per year, while at the same time pointing out that the number of new housing completions are lower than new household formation. (6) That makes no sense.

To replace the existing stock of nearly 26 million homes at 1% per year would require 260,000 houses and flats, while the demand for new housing in addition to the existing is probably just short of 240,000 homes per year. Assuming a 100 year average design life the RIBA should be calling for 500,000 homes a year. (7)

While they call for new homes to be as spacious and adaptable as the Georgian or Victorian stock that has lasted longer than 100 years, they simply insist on more off-site manufacture, together with the economies of scale offered by an expanding house building programme. (6) Yet house building is barely an expanding programme. The most "ambitious" aim of government since New Labour came to power a decade ago, in Gordon Brown's legislative plans for a new Housing Bill in the 2007/2008 session of parliament, is to raise the annual house building target for England in 2016 from 200,000 to 240,000 new homes a year. (8) That is a target for a decade ahead.

In 2005/2006 there were 163,398 new homes completed in England, with 24,482 in Scotland, and 8,257 in Wales. A total of 196,137 in total for Britain. (9) If Brown's 240,000 target is to be met before 2016 housing production in England shall have to increase by just under 80,000 homes a year, or by nearly 50%, by the end of the next decade. That building is only sustainable for Gordon if done '... in environmentally friendly ways using principally brownfield land and building eco towns and villages'. (8)

Assuming housing production in Scotland and Wales is not increasing by 50%, that would be a total for Britain of just under 275,000 homes per year. If a 50% increase were required in Scotland and Wales too the total would be just over 290,000 per annum. However household growth in Britain, not England, is 240,000 in 2007, and may be more in 2016.

The building of 35,000 to 50,000 homes in addition to household growth in Britain only makes sense if these homes replace the worst of the existing stock. That is if between 35,000 and 50,000 homes were demolished in the process. In which case the aim would be 240,000 net additions to the British stock.

240,000 net additions in England is a nonsense. By citing 240,000 homes in England Gordon seems to be merely wanting to build a few tens of thousands of investment properties for the second home market without replacing any worn out housing.

In any case 35,000 to 50,000 homes in addition to household growth in Britain is hopeless. Such a low rate of replacement of existing stock would require housing to last anywhere between 750 and 500 years.

260,000 replacement homes per annum are required to have an average of a 100 year structural design life, far in excess of the 35,000 to 50,000 being talked about. However the low ambition for Modern Methods of Construction promoted by government and the Building Research Establishment suggests a 60 year structural design life, which would require more than 430,000 to be replaced each year. A total of 670,000 after allowing for new homes for household growth in 2007.

Gordon's target, to the extent that it is possible to make any sense from what he is saying at the moment, and the much lower target in the RIBA policy paper, are falling short of engagement with not only the scale of the problem of housing production, but the underlying fact that the British people are not free to meet government housing targets.

If the PM is talking about net additions, then replacement homes are needed for those being demolished annually. It is unclear what he is counting. What is certain is the failure of MMC. This technical idiocy so promoted by architects has resulted in expensive architectural experiments that are not very adaptable, and not designed to be easily upgraded with advances in building services. MMC has meant targets have been missed because the cost of construction has not been reduced. Quality has often not been raised, and the cost of planning approval on land now dwarfs the construction cost. Gordon needs to do more than just call for 240,000 homes per annum. He should be clear on net additions based on declared rates of replacement, and might drop the MMC fantasy to specify minimal space standards. He should and might, but don't hold your breath. Meanwhile planning approved land is still at a premium, and doing anything about that is a real challenge - alongside the one of producing more and better residential architecture for less £/m2.

Let's not forget that poor residential architecture never gets in the way of a seemingly lucrative financial speculation. Gordon Brown and David Cameron will huff and puff, together in opposition, to try to expand owner occupation further than the 70% who occupy the house or flat they more or less own. While some of the majority will hope to maintain some of the reducing minority as private tenants in buy-to-let arrangements, many tenants hope they are not permanently priced out of buying an "asset" of their own before long. They want to be priced in.

Those British "assets" mostly belong to the "income poor" in their old age, who can't liquidate the ludicrously inflating market value of their homes because many middle-aged parents, and even the best paid "debt rich" young, increasingly can't afford to buy them. Even if they wanted to, which many don't, and assuming they could find cheaper housing in the right place at the right time, parents whose children have moved out will find it harder to trade down by realising the full asking price of their old home. Most will understandably hold on, hoping not to make a "loss".

For those in retirement pensions and healthcare become a concern. If you can't sell your home, what then? Reverse mortgage schemes are obviously in the interests of the reverse mortgage companies, and many parents don't want to be living off what they hope will be "something to leave behind". Death is not an option, and Britain's post-war baby-boom generation is thankfully living longer, wanting greater independence.

For others seeing their children "get started" in home ownership is a concern too. Entire professions are engaged with a taxation regime that took Gordon Brown as Chancellor a decade to make; one that finds new ways to frustrate but not fully prevent home-owners from financing their offspring while still alive. There may be financial fun to be had for some middle-class parents buying housing "assets" for sons and daughters at University, but most students grow up sometime. They need a home of their own. For many children there is no parental assistance.

Trying to turn homes into pensions and healthcare, or even educational trusts, as the Japanese discovered in the early 1990s, is a financial hostage to economic misfortune and geo-political change. Obviously Britain is not Japan - the post-war settlements were fundamentally different. Britain reached the political compromise of the Welfare State, which successive governments have been variously dismantling since the late 1960s. Japan was corporately restructured under American influence, not least for industrial support during the Korean War. In Japan the collapse in the property market wiped out the hopes of many corporate employees already in or approaching their retirement. It is the young who are accumulating housing equity afresh under new employment conditions in Japan. The opposite to the generational divide in Britain's current housing market. (10)

The point is just that the housing market is not a reliable substitute for social welfare, and a welfare system is no substitute for an underlying economic and political dynamic. Britain in 2007 is a place where the population lives in generally useless homes, more or less artfully stacked together, mostly within easy reach of often ordinary but sometimes extra-ordinary countryside that cannot legally be lived in. There is a widespread hope that these dilapidating dwellings will exchange for sums of money sufficient to live off when the time comes. Change is not what people want if the market value of a utility like a home has become a life long project. Little Britain, where things are planned out, seems like a fragile haven in a wider, populous world of change.

Contrast Little Britain's desperate obsession with house prices with the awesome prospects for political and economic change in and around China and India. We can't imagine we won't be affected for good and bad in the immediate future. Bill Bryson's suggestion that all of Britain be turned into a park is just an expression of the current fearfulness of being British, from an American who treats the British countryside as the formal public garden to his adopted home. If the British were free to build in the countryside, and live in homes valued more for their usefulness than the many multiples of annual income they exchange for, there would be no housing market obsession. The town will not evaporate as denser urbanism, but will be used differently as the planned divide between town and country is dissolved. (7)

If there was the freedom to build in Britain, the inflated housing market could not exist. The mere possibility that a home could be built in all but the Best Most Valued farmland, and in all but the seriously beautiful or historically significant bits of built heritage and maintained countryside, would mean that urban land was not so valuable. The freedom to build on more than 50% of Britain - and the more the better - would be enough to devalue the less than 10% already developed. For the majority there would be no need to exercise that freedom to build on green fields, because existing housing would be affordable, and plenty of cheap, previously used land would enter the devalued market, ready for redevelopment. Location would inevitably remain valuable, but there would be no artifical scarcity value on land itself. The use value of housing would again be more important than the exchange value.

If that is all true, then it is the planned urban containment which props up the unaffordable housing market, which is itself a crucial but vulnerable component of Britain's social welfare system. That is the weakness at home when New Labour is desperately trying to project Britain's international political and economic importance abroad. Most plainly through the British Army, but more diplomatically by lecturing the world on climate change. Put another way, a belligerent and moralising foreign policy is an attempt to make up for being Little Britain, obsessed with retirement on the sale price of poor quality and insufficient housing.

This sense of smallness in a world busy developing is particularly of concern to the post-war generation of British baby-boomers. They have more of a lingering sense of history. Their parents told them what the first half of the twentieth century was like, between the First and the Second World Wars. From a time of post-war austerity they experienced the enthusiasm for, disillusionment in, and abandonment of council house welfarism on the way to the idealisation of a private home owning democracy. That was all against a background of domestic economic turmoil, punctuated by international conflicts. Then came the end of the Cold War, a property market crash, and an almost embarrassing speculative recovery in the eco-aware twenty-first century.

British baby-boomers have reached the point, under Gordon Brown first as Chancellor and now Prime Minister, where housing unaffordability and residential property speculation are mundane alongside the news of British meddling in other people's countries. The destruction and death that New Labour administers has an obscene coexistence with talk of ecological house building, and with Gordon insisting on a British sense of "fairness" at home. (11)

Bryson is just the latest expression of the "Small Country Syndrome" that Richard Rogers and Anne Power exhibited in 2000, (12) after they had reasserted planning as urban containment, (13) and which fellow Urban Task Forcer Sir Peter Hall eventually denounced as a "land fetish" in 2005. (14) Hall was weak in his criticism of the UTF myth he helped establish; that restricting access to developable land in the countryside would force a renaissance of the town. The opposite is of course true.

Restricting access to developable land in the countryside has inflated the speculative value of every scrap of planning approved land in the town. Exploding wider access to developable land in the countryside would deflate the value of the town, and that would introduce a dynamic to urban redevelopment. But it would need to be an explosion - more than 50% of Britain available to build on, with a need to build on perhaps no more than 15% of that land for a considerable period of time.

Of course, this explosion of planning approval would be objected to by the major house builders that Gordon is looking to deliver his 50% hike in annual production. They make their profits from the value of gaining planning approval, after driving down both the cost of construction and land purchase. If land were cheap and pre-approved for development, builders would have to make profits from construction, as they used to. That is a lot less lucrative as a business. As James Heartfield appreciates writing for spiked! online, the majors '... like to say that they are acting in "partnership" with the Communities and Local Government office, and with the planners. But this partnership is too cosy.' (15)

click here for James Heartfield's article Who’s to blame for crazy house prices? - and much more on spiked!

Gordon is only going to allow a carefully managed release of just enough additional land to the major house builders wanting to grow and further consolidate their businesses. Their substantial businesses, which produce the vast majority of all British housing, are effectively licenced through planning. Gordon's price is that 100% of the housing built must be seen to be "eco", and he hopes they will reach his target of between 275,000 and almost 300,000 per annum by 2016. But that also raises the bar on entry into the market for smaller builders, and self-builders. This is a typically British political compromise that, as Heartfield understands, works in the interests of those who would monopolise the market, or want to see it monopolised.

Compromise is easy in Britain. Hall remains compromised at the Town and Country Planning Association, after identifying planning as urban containment in 1973, (16) and then backing the urban compaction agenda. While Bryson at the CPRE is more comfortable with the artificiality of rural Britain when compared to the rump of UTF crammers, he explicitly wants to resist the political compromise New Labour is making with the major house builders. Bryson is in the CPRE, and clearly not interested in prospects for the majority. As a point of principle Bryson wants to deny everyone the potential to remake the environment anew, fit for a growing population with aspirations for a new century.

Bill Bryson knows that Britain '... is almost entirely man-made'. For Bryson '... that’s really quite interesting. Where I come from, when the landscape is stunning it’s because nature made it that way. In Britain when it’s stunning, it is, more often than not, because people made it that way. Of Britain’s 27 World Heritage sites, only four are natural formations. All the rest are monuments and landscapes built by humans. What makes this country superlative are the things that people have done for it.' (3)

The CPRE don't want to see the major house builders get 50% stronger, but they may compromise on that too. Yet the CPRE clearly want to keep true to their origins, and encourage people to do environmental things for the country, reacting against people doing things for themselves. In that regard they are no different to the government that sustains the planned containment exercise that so distorts the business of constructing housing. Of course there are grumblings about government handling of planning amongst Little Britain's comfortably propertied middle classes, and their eco-minded children. However government is not about to set people free to build useful homes in vast numbers on abundant land.

Having greater freedom to build for use rather than exchange would seriously challenge the British economy in 2007, just as Martin Pawley foresaw in his Home Ownership of 1978. (17) A book that the RIBA leadership would have done well to read before backing the UTF, and before their latest platitudinous policy paper hoping to sound Brownite.

While there are grumblings too at the RIBA, most architects cannot bring themselves to condemn the disastrous densification policies authored by the UTF, which the RIBA supported in 1999, and which led to the cramming of diminutive flats into scraps of land in the name of sustainable development. The RIBA may now be critical of tiny, expensive, MMC flats, built in inadequate numbers, and incapable of lasting a century. The RIBA, like Gordon and David, may now be horrified that these MMC novelties cost more than most can afford. But Better Homes and Neighbourhoods hardly suggests the RIBA has learned from the policy mistakes of Richard Rogers which it supported so forcefully as an “urban renaissance”.

The RIBA should argue for a far greater quantity of annual housing production before it babbles about sustainability or “design quality”. (6) They need to at least match Gordon's figure, whatever that is in detail, if they fail to see the need for 500,000 homes per annum. For us that assumes 260,000 replacement homes, and so is a net annual addition of 240,000 to the 26 million stock.

However it is also likely that the RIBA will fail to understand that building a few more homes annually, while more useful than not building, will have little impact on exchange values. Only the freedom to build on more than 50% of Britain will be sufficient to address the affordability crisis. It might be that 75% could be considered free to build on, after working out the land that really deserves to be protected. Or 90%, if we want real discretion on the heritage and landscape that is important to project into the future. But returning development rights to the landowners of more than 50% of Britain, who are now firmly in the political majority, would ensure sufficient freedom to reorientate the housing market from one based on speculation to one more focused on the depreciating cost of a utility, tempered by issues of location.

Interestingly in Opening up the Debate: Exploring housing land supply myths the Royal Town Planning Institute say that '… too many of those involved in finding ways ahead seem prepared to accept the thesis that all we need is to release more land through the planning system and then, on the basis of a simple equation between demand and supply, house prices will fall.' (18) The RTPI makes the right point.

Affordability is simply not going to be realised by building 160,000, 200,000, or 240,000 homes in England every year. Nor will building 500,000 homes annually in Britain, and demolishing 260,000 at the same time, be sufficient to affect the market in 70% of 26 million homes for 60 million people. That construction activity will meet household growth and remove the worst of the existing stock by adding useful new housing, and those homes should be built. However all new and replacement homes will still exchange on the market that currently depends on the British denial of freedom that planning represents.

Tackling housing affordability in 2007 is not as painless as building more homes. Nor is tenure the issue. Calling for more rented housing, including council housing, is to leave the speculative market to be engaged in by landlords rather than households. It is of course an understatement to say that choosing the minimal 50% of land to be reinstated with development rights will be politically far harder than identifying perhaps as little as 10% of wonderful heritage and landscape to be excluded from the freedom to build. Many will want to keep the 100% denial of development rights so overlayed since 1947 with other protection measures. These are imponderables until politicians set about ending the 60 year denial of the freedom to build. But such politicians do not exist in Britain.

All that is certain is that a bit more land released through the planning system will not reduce unaffordability. Only an explosion of access to greenfield land ensuring a widespread freedom to build will be sufficient to collapse the mass of 18.2 million property values in popular owner occupation. Rendering the whole stock of 26 million homes affordable, as asset values were wiped out, and rents reduced accordingly. Public and private landlords would not be unaffected.

The RTPI would also have to reinvent itself dramatically. Providing a superfluity of developable farmland, either through a high capacity system of pre-approvals, or by getting rid of the 1947 denial of development rights, is the way to restore housing affordability. However the RTPI will not accept that, and the RIBA is not in the freedom to build business. Setting people free in 2007 is definitely not what Gordon means by "moving Britain forward". (11)

Instead, architects are content to be one of the multitude of professionals it now takes to get anything built through the government run maze of the planning system, and the government supported fee filter that is the BRE. Architects will help Gordon stick pinwheels and solar gizmos all over "exemplar" eco-housing projects. David will watch as Gordon gets the political credit for a few expensive eco-towns and villages, leaving the surplus of "cherished" countryside intact.

Everyone will be as confident as they can be that Brown's brownfield eco-towns and villages won't cause the bottom to fall out of the soon to be £4 trillion property market in the 70% of the 26 million existing, but less-than-eco-homes. Bill Bryson need not expect much change. The government will come to a compromise with the major house builders and the CPRE. It may even be the CPRE that champions the eco-towns and villages to be built under licence by the major house builders.

So in conclusion, check the quantities and qualities of homes being built and demolished, but just don't expect affordability in housing while you are not free to build.

Ian Abley 13.07.2007

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