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James Heartfield click here for audacity 001 Let's Build!
Let's Build!
Why we need five million
new homes in the next
10 years

James Heartfield

With a foreword by Robert Bruegmann

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1. John Stewart, Building a Crisis - Long-term housing under-supply in England , House Builders Federation, 2002, posted here

2. Final report of the Urban Task Force chaired by Lord Rogers of Riverside, Towards an Urban Renaissance, E & FN Spon, 1999, p 173

3. Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Our Towns and cities - the future, Delivering an urban renaissance, London, HMSO, 2000, p 14

4. Ibid, p 5

5. Performance and Innovation Unit report, Geographic Mobility, TSO, 2002, p 13

6. The Guardian, 20 March 2002

7. Steve Scrivens, quoted by Shaun Castle, 'A New Town for the South East', in the sticks, January 2002, p 6

8. The Evening Standard, 11 November 2002

It's time to face down the environment lobby and build many more houses

The groundswell of popular demand for living space is to be welcomed.

So why do some people want to frustrate those aspirations?

We just are not building enough houses. In the four years between 1996 and 2000 there were 196,000 new households - families that need housing - each year, but only 139,000 new houses built: that is a shortfall of nearly 60,000 houses built every year. A shortage one year could be made up later, but a shortage every year was bound to become a crisis. Since 1980 the average shortfall has been 30,000 houses each year, creating a vast backlog of unmet demand. In Building a Crisis John Stewart, an economic advisor to the House Builders Federation and government, estimates that on the current trend houses being built now will have to last 1500 years. (1)

clickBuilding a Crisis - Housing under-supply in England (May 2002) 900Kb

Of course, every household knows full well the problem of housing supply, without any need for statistics. Britons are spending a fifth of household income on housing and utilities, and house prices just keep on rising, despite warnings from the Bank of England that they are "unsustainable". Of course house prices are unsustainable. Ordinary people are being priced out of inner London, selling up to the increasingly homogenous social caste of young professionals; first time buyers are finding themselves priced out not just of the London market, but as far as Reading, Oxford, and even Bristol and Wales.

It does not help that house prices are currently being ramped up by speculative investors. These speculative bubbles attach themselves to a particular market, like investments in East Asia, or the internet, rarely having any positive impact, except for investors. But it is the relative shortage of houses that makes it a good market for speculative investors, looking to make money out of money, by buying existing properties to rent, or sell on. Too little of that money is going to new building, which, if it made a dent in demand, would anyway tend to reduce the value of individual investments.

The housing market is not helped by a relatively low-wage, service economy that Britain became in the 1980s, leaving people less to spend on their homes. In the past, though, government would have compensated for the shortfall through social housing. But today the deficit is across the board.

Since its election in 1997, the New Labour administration reversed Labour's traditional policy of favouring more homes. On the contrary, this peculiarly short-term, pragmatic government allowed its housing policy to be captured by a lobby that was largely opposed to new building. Back in 1996, the Conservative Environment minister John Selwyn Gummer proposed that four-million new homes were needed to meet the accumulating shortfall. It was a conservative estimate, but nonetheless the overwhelming response was negative. To the growing environmental lobby, more homes meant a threat to the countryside.

The New Labour administration made itself a hostage to the green lobby in the shape of Lord Rogers of Riverside's Urban Task Force, to whom it contracted out development policy, with disastrous results.

Lord Rogers' Task Force adopted a patrician approach of "protecting the countryside", from the oiks, so to speak. According to the Urban Task Force, it ought to be a goal to '... attract people back into towns and cities'. (2)

Why is it any business of government where people ought to live? Perhaps, they mean that the countryside is in danger of being over-run by people, a strangely misanthropic view, but one worth considering. But the statistics say otherwise. Four-fifths of all Britons live in towns and cities of over ten-thousand people, and these cover a tiny seven per cent of the nation's landmass. Fully three-quarters of Britain is dedicated to agriculture, of which about a third is not needed. There is no natural shortage of land to build on, only an absence of will to let it happen.

Richard Rogers might have seen himself as a benign dictator, looking out for un-used spaces over shops to cram people into, full of good advice to his subject, like "walk more", and taxing parking spaces out of existence. More than an ambition to keep the countryside free of vagabonds, Lord Rogers impressed the Deputy Prime Minister with the argument that city life was a good in itself. In the White Paper based on the Task Force report, Our Towns and Cities, John Prescott insists that '... our guiding principle is that people must come first'. (3) But Prescott is afraid of people, unless they are suitably civilised. So he quotes approvingly Rogers' dictum: "people make cities but cities make citizens". (4) At root this was never a policy about providing resources, but one about social order, obedience and docility. Herd the masses in to the cities, the better to keep an eye on them.

But the attempt to generalise Lord Rogers of Riverside's own "urban-village" lifestyle was spectacularly myopic. More recently the government has woken up to the fact that we do not all want to live in apartments overlooking the river, within walking distance of Hoxton. Nor could we.

While Lord Canute of Seaside was commanding otherwise, a "counter-urbanisation cascade" was sending people pouring out of the cities into the suburbs.

Research by the Performance and Innovation unit tells Prescott what everybody else knew already, that young people might want to live in city centres, but people with families move out, trading proximity to the centre for space, and amenities. (5)

In the Middle Ages the saying that Stadtluft macht frei, "town air makes a free man", captured the difference between the civilised town and rural idiocy. But the distinction between town and country - based on a redundant need to farm extensively - is breaking down. Dr Johnson might have thought that the man who is tired of London is tired of life, but with transport developments and telecommunications, living away from the metropolis does not mean abandoning culture, but embracing space. Dispersed living is a future available to us thanks to new technologies, and it is a future that people are voting for with their wheels. In fact, even within city centres, conversion of industrial space into residential is driven largely by the desire for larger living space, no matter how much the Urban Task Force praises pocket-living.

One of the Task Force's great successes in skewing the public debate is the injunction to build on "brownfield" and not "greenfield" sites. It is a proposal that sounds right because it chimes with the ecologically cautious attitude that we should leave a small 'footprint' on the earth. But as we see, there is no obvious shortage of land; in fact more and more of it is being retired from farm use. The argument that brownfield development is preferable amounts to an attempt to limit building to development of existing sites, regardless of the expansion in the number of households, and just as importantly, the greater aspiration people have for more living space. Who are we saving the countryside for, if we are not saving it for people to live in and enjoy?

The number of people queuing up to tell the government that their policy is unworkable is growing, including the Rowntree Trust, (6) who warn that many more homes on green field sites will be needed. It is a call that the government has had to pay lip service to. At the Birmingham Urban Summit this summer it appeared that the green light would be given to more building. At last it appears that the Thames Gateway, an area potentially the size of Tokyo, will be opened up to development.

Landscape architect Steve Scrivens is one of those who have joined the campaign to create new towns in the South East. (7) His proposed town between Gravesend and the North Downs is a bold solution to the housing crisis that deserves to be built, and built now. The £2.2 billion Land Securities development in the Eastern Quarry by Bluewater shopping city is a start. (8) Anyone interested in good development will rightly be watching these proposals to ensure that their standard is high. But what cannot be allowed to happen is that the public debate is monopolised by those for whom a fictitious ideal of England's Green and Pleasant Land takes precedence over real housing needs.

This is the time to start putting the housing shortage right. Let's build!

James Heartfield 01.04.2003

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