1. James Heartfield, Let's Build! - Why we need five million new homes in the next 10 years, London, audacity, 2006
Where to build in 2009?
With British household income averaging at around £30,000 this suggest that a volume of privately owned housing priced in the middle of the market should be costing less than £90,000. Without a stock of housing to buy at such a price Britain does not have an affordable market.
Today poor quality agricultural land costs between £10,000 and £15,000 a hectare. Even allowing for a land agent that may mean £50,000 to £100,000 for a hectare, to be sold in plots of between 10 and 20 homes a hectare. Many farmers today would sell their land for housing development at £5,000 a plot. Add to the plot a £5,000 cost for utilities and £5,000 for various technical and organisational fees, ensuring compliance with current Building Regulations. The twenty-first century plotlander would need £15,000 to start building as was possible before 1947, when the Town and Country Planning Act made plotlands illegal.
If anyone tried to build on their plot individually their house would be demolished by planners backed by the full weight of the law. Their money and labour would be lost. But before considering how to resist demolition it is worth considering costs of building, and where to build.
If the home was to be 75m2, and built at £800/m2, the construction would cost £60,000. Add a further £5,000 for fitting the house internally, and the £15,000 in getting started on a plot, the whole would cost £80,000. If the home were 100m2 it would cost £100,000. That means 75m2 to 100m2 house types for around £90,000. That is 3 x £30,000.
A suburban home with large garden would cost between £80,000 and £100,000, or less than three times British average household income. It is not hard to see professional builders making a profit in brick and block construction at £800/m2. Plotlanders could temporarily build a smaller home, or try to find imaginative ways to reduce the price of floor area. It would be a challenge for architects to build at under £800/m2, but much architectural activity sadly drives cost into a square metre of housing.
Architects might be involved, but suburban housing is typical. If can be copied from numerous built examples, or from books. The better books are Pattern Books, that explain how to arrange the home for the best use of space and convenience. More imaginative Pattern Books are needed for British plotlanders building to a budget in the twenty-first century.
So where to build in Britain in 2009? Something of an answer came out of All Planned Out? a two day international conference in London in May 2007. Two years ago, as the housing bubble was still inflating, audacity brought together professionals, academics, and those more widely interested in development to review planning successes, recognise failures, and to discuss the requirements of a new century. We produced a map of England for the event that represented government mapping exercises. These showed there is plenty of farmland to build on:
We updated this in March 2011 with the expansion of the Green Belt, but the April 2009 document made essentially the same point.
The government maps graphically show that the population of Britain, which is 61 million in 2009, is contained in less than 10% of Britain. Much less than 10% in many local authority areas. 26 million households are not free to build anywhere in 90% of the country, because planning approval would be refused. People can buy plots of land for £5,000 from farmers only too willing to sell for more than agricultural value. However if they tried to build their money would be at serious risk, because planners would be unceasing in their professional efforts to knock the homes down. Individually plotlanders would suffer the 1947 planning law.
The only possibility for farmers to sell and for plotlanders to resist demolition, assuming they could raise the money to buy land and build in the first place, would be to organise a collective effort in the twenty-first century to break the planning law. They would have to build a new town.
Not one new town, but for the sake of argument the self-motivated and networked organisation of 250 illegal new towns across Britain, with the majority in England, and many in the South East. Organised groups of people would aim to build 2,000 homes a year in each of 250 rural locations connected to the transport and energy infrastructure of Britain. If they could keep that up for 20 years, and before 2030 if we started now, there would be 250 new towns of 40,000 homes across Britain.
They would need to win the argument for what they were doing.
If they succeeded the 250 groups of new town plotlanders would together be building 500,000 homes. Plotland housing production would then match annual growth in household numbers, estimated at 240,000, and replace the worst of the ageing British housing stock at a rate of 1% per annum. (1) This would create the necessary slack in the market that is currently absent. 260,000 of the worst houses and flats could be vacated and demolished in existing areas. They would be abandoned.
If built at between 10 and 20 homes a hectare at £5,000 a plot that would require the sale of between 50,000 and 25,000 hectares of redundant farmland in Britain. Excluding Northern Ireland, which is Irish, Britain is 22,893,000 hectares, of which 258,000 is inland water. That totals 22,635,000 hectares of land, of which no more than 10% is already developed. (2) 50,000 hectares to build half a million homes a year at 10 homes a hectare, which is a 900m2 plot, is 0.22% of Britain. At 20 homes a hectare that would be 0.11%. Existing areas would be releasing plots as vacated homes are demolished.
Not everyone would want a 900m2 or 450m2 plot. If the new towns were built at about 31 homes a hectare as an average that would require 16,250 hectares, or about 65 hectares in 250 locations. That is 250 squares of land each with a side of 806m. Which is more or less equivalent to squares with a side of half a mile. There are four of those in a square mile. Half a million homes built at an average of 31 homes a hectare would add 0.072% to Britain's developed area. That is already less than a 0.075% increase in developed area a year in 2009. A land use reduced by the clearance of previously developed land made available by the 260,000 homes built additional to the 240,000 required for household growth in the 250 illegal new towns.
Over 20 years at a rate of 0.075% a year the developed area of Britain would increase by 1.5%, less the effect of abandoning, replacing, and clearing 20 x 260,000 homes elsewhere in Britain. In total then 250 illegal new towns of 40,000 households each would result in a net addition of 1% developed area to the 10% already developed. Started now by 250 organised groups and built at a rate of 2,000 homes a year, requiring 65 hectares or a quarter of a square mile of former farmland every year, 10 million households would have housed themselves. That would be 4,800,000 new households added to the 26 million in Britain in 2009, with 5,200,000 households vacating unaffordable and poor quality housing to join them in 250 new locations.
Repeated over a century, or for another five times by a new generation, and Britain would have been transformed. It would be 15% developed, with 85% of the countryside uninhabited. A full 5% of Britain as an amount of redundant farmland would no longer need subsidy. People would live in it as new landscape. If people wanted to disperse more into the landscape at 10 homes a hectare that would possible, because others would want to live at densities higher than 30 homes a hectare. If everyone wanted to live at an average of 10 homes a hectare 15% of Britain would be needed to add to the 10% developed already. Such a low density but much more developed Britain would be 25% inhabited, but the housing would be diffused through a tree lined landscape.
However done, 24 million new households would have formed. Added to the 26 million households in 2009 Britain would consist of 50 million households by 2109. There would be 1,250 new towns built in a single century, and Britain's housing stock would have been substantially renewed. Urban areas from 2009 will have become more spacious places to live, while nearly half the population would be living in locations that do not exist today. That will not be a population of 61 million, but a much bigger and better housed Britain of between 100 and 120 million.
That assumes a level of housing production constant at 500,000 homes a year. It is an over-simplification to make a point, but not in any way an over-estimation of the scale of action that is required. It is in fact an under-estimation of what is needed. Over a century, the total number of homes built every year should increase upwards of half a million. As the housing stock increases the size of the 1% needed to replace the ageing stock increases. As the population increases the rate of household formation is likely to increase, requiring more new homes every year. A more sophisticated mathematical model of housing production and population growth can be sketched, but that can wait...
The immediate task is to form the first of 250 groups of twenty-first century plotlanders into a network to develop organisational ideas. There would be some arguments to have, and matters of finance to resolve.
There is plenty of redundant farmland in Britain in 2009, but no-one is allowed to build on it because of the Town and Country Planning Act that stopped the plotlands in 1947. The planning law ensures that no-one can build a home in Britain for less than three times an average household income. Planning ensures the housing market stays inflated, even after housing bubbles burst. Planning ensures that household and population growth is seen a "pressure" to be resisted and criticised rather than welcomed and met with housing production. We know where to build.
In 250 locations that will break the planning law.
Ian Abley 14.04.09
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