Forget Eco-towns - Let's follow the example of Britain's Gypsies
In March 2008 Gypsies started to build themselves a place to live at Darlingscott, near Shipston-on-Stour, in Warwickshire. It became pressworthy because Tessa Jowell's husband David Mills has a home there. Though the local Tory councillor Chris Saint has tried to lead a mob against them, the Gypsies own their land, which they bought from a farmer. They have put in a septic tank and put up fences.
They are just people trying to deal with the shortage of places to live.
What they do not have is "planning permission" - the say so of the high and mighty town councillors from Stratford-on-Avon District Council.
Under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, owning land is not enough to be able to build upon it - you also need to be granted planning permission. Since 1955 Britain's major towns and cities are additionally surrounded by "Green Belts" to limit urban sprawl. Those wanting to build on the Green Belt will be denied planning permission. Since the 1969 Skeffington Report planning decisions also rest heavily on local views - giving "not in my back yard"-ers a veto on new homes. In 1999 the Urban Task Force commanded that primarily land that had already been built on - "brownfield", as opposed to "greenfield" land - should be developed.
This extensive system for the prevention of house building was policed by a score of "concerned" pressure groups. The Campaign to Protect Rural England, English Heritage, the Urban Task Force, the Greater London Authority, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the Tory Shires, the Green Party, and a host of other Nimby campaigners all ganged up to stop new homes being built.
Guess what? It worked.
House building in Britain slumped to its lowest since the Second World War - 162,000 homes a year in 2001, compared with 413,000 a year in 1968. Still, at least they were building homes, you might say.
Unfortunately you need to build around 260,000 each year just to replace the ones that need to come down. What is more, changes in family size and immigration meant that we needed more homes, not less. Add another 240,000 for those new households and Britain should be building at least 500,000 homes a year, with 260,000 demolitions.
In 2007 only 200,000 homes were built in Britain, nearly half as flats, with few demolitions from the existing stock of ageing housing.
The shortage in houses being built came at the same time as cheap mortgages. You did not need a GCSE in economics to work out what would happen when supply was limited but demand was growing: prices rose. Today Britons have about four trillion pounds (£4,000,000,000,000) supposedly "invested" in the privately owned housing stock. Imagine any other sector that absorbed £4 trillion in value and at the same time saw its output reduced to a fraction of what it had been.
It is because not enough homes are being built that people like the Warwickshire Gypsies are forced to break the planning law. They are following the example of Gypsies who did the same thing in Essex five years ago. Gypsies are not the only ones finding it hard to match their lives to the dictates of the planning law.
Janet and Tony Wrench lived for years in their eco-house in the Pembrokeshire National Park before they were evicted for breaking the planning law. In Walthamstow I found a family of east Europeans living in a garden shed. In Chichester a Woodcraft Folk summer camp was refused permission to set up tents in a field they had been visiting for years because they did not have planning permission. There will be many more examples...
Meanwhile the average age of first time buyers has risen so that people are into their thirties before they might get a home of their own.
The success of the anti-housing lobby was so overwhelming that the government started to get nervous. Somehow unaware that they were the ones who had blessed this system of preventing homes being built, the government reacted against the consequences of their own planning policies. "Why are developers not building homes?" they asked. Unwilling, though, to dismantle the extraordinary machinery of house building prevention, they created other mechanisms in an effort to compensate by boosting house building in specific locations, or with special conditions.
Government identified the "Thames Gateway" as a priority area, while Tony Blair was Prime Minister, even though it is a flood plain on the estuary, and mostly derelict land. But - Lo and Behold! - once they named it a priority area for growth, the little house building that was taking place there ground to a halt.
Then, while Deputy Prime Minister and in charge of planning, John Prescott set up a key-worker housing scheme to help firemen and nurses onto the housing ladder. Its conditions were so onerous that the take-up was too small to count.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown's latest wheeze is the Eco-town. This policy is designed to square the circle of a commitment to defending the countryside against expansion, while also getting new homes built. Of course, the policy is all things to all people, which is the same as being nothing at all.
The opponents of any new homes being built are not fooled. They scoff at the Eco-towns, making the point - rational in its own insane terms of reference - that the towns we already have are quite enough of a disturbance to the "eco-system". Like previous commitments to new building, all that the announcement has done is provoke a caterwauling of complaint from the usual moaning minnies: Simon Jenkins, Mark Lynas and Tristram "gets his facts wrong" Hunt.
There is, sad to say, little danger than any number of new homes will get built the Eco-town way. Like previous announcements, the Eco-town proposal is so heavily hedged with conditions that developers would be daft to take them on. Why should they? They make a mint selling the tiny number of homes they do build at inflated prices.
The only answer to the housing shortage is to abolish planning permission by repealing the Town and Country Planning Act.
Some people say to me that there is nothing wrong in principle with the Green Belt, it is just how it has been applied. But that is daft. The Green Belt has been applied in just the way it was intended, as a Toffs' barricade against the great unwashed. By the same token, I guess there is nothing wrong with immigration laws too, if only they were not designed to bar immigrants.
The idea that there is not enough land for new homes is so wide of the mark, that even the CPRE has stopped its speakers from arguing that line. Only one tenth of Britain is built up. You could expand our towns and cities by twenty per cent, and still make no dent in the amount of countryside available.
Some people think that the credit crunch will make cheaper houses available. Prices might well start to fall, though so far they have barely done so. But since the background is reduced availability of credit, lower prices will not mean greater availability of houses - they will be cheaper, but you will have correspondingly less money to buy them. How could it be otherwise? The underlying problem of not enough homes being built has not been addressed. Indeed, fears over the housing market have led to a drop in the number of homes being built.
The Green Belt and planning laws are a clear example of the way that green policies are damaging people's lives - not at some future date, but right now.
Instead of attacking the Gypsies in Warwickshire, we should follow their example. They have had the courage to put their own families before a cruel law. People struggling to find a home today could do a lot worse than to buy up surplus farmland cheap and build their own houses.
Let's build on the Green Belt, because there is little chance that the government will ever get around to it.
James Heartfield 15.04.2008
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