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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. Geoff Mulgan, Geographic Mobility, Performance and Innovation Unit, 2002, p 13, posted on www.piu.gov.uk


Nowhere near enough new homes

Deputy Prime Minster John Prescott is promising 200,000 new homes in the South East and a big boost in public spending to make it happen, facing down green critics. It would be good if environmentalists influenced government even less. Government gives far too much ground to the green lobby, causing gridlock in its housing programme.

Lord Rogers' Urban Task Force has substantial influence in dissuading government from building new homes, by overburdening the discussion with reasons not to build. What we needed was a Task Force prepared to fight for those young families who cannot afford new homes, by demanding ambitious building plans.

Though the government plays it down, green thinking has helped to generate the housing crisis that is now pressing upon the Deputy Prime Minister. By failing to build homes, and the infrastructure to serve them, the government has presided over a shortage that is pricing younger people, and those on lower wages out of the housing market. Richard Rogers' idyll of urban villages, it seems, is applicable to a few well-paid media or new economy types but is repelling the rest of us.

One more piece of evidence in front of the Deputy Prime Minister comes from policy-wonk Geoff Mulgan's Performance and Innovation Unit. The Unit's report, Geographic Mobility, describes a '... "counter-urbanisation cascade" of population flows from the most urban areas to the suburbs; from the suburbs to the fringes; and from the fringes to rural areas'. (1)

These are the housing pressures in the South East. The Deputy Prime Minister's decision, then, ought to be a welcome change for those who are struggling to afford a home. Ought to be, but isn't.

The decision to increase housing production targets is begrudged, too mean, and remains locked in the small-minded prejudices of the over-influential Urban Task Force.

Two hundred thousand new homes is nowhere near enough - and Prescott has not even given a timescale for these new homes. Assuming that existing houses were to last between 50 and 100 years, we would have to build between 240,000 and 480,000 a year just to replace the existing stock, instead of the 160,000 a year currently completed. On top of that, the number of households is estimated to rise by another million by 2021. The government's target looks pretty modest compared to the 1968 peak of housing completions, 413,700.

The kind of developments, too, indicate the Deputy Prime Minister's limited horizons. Prefabrication could be a great boon in a fully mechanised buinding programme, but so far what has been talked about is portacabins for so-called "key-workers".

As anyone who has ever worked in the public sector knows, the false flattery that calls some "key workers" is a trap that wrings more work for less pay out of nursing "angels" and fire-fighting "heroes". Elevating some to the status of key-workers is akin to the Victorian distinction between the deserving and the un-deserving poor. And what happens if you leave your "key work"? Eviction?

The pressure on the low paid is only the extreme symptom of the overall shortage, and the best answer is to build more houses for everyone, not hang onto existing housing stock as if it were the Crown Jewels.

The "counter urban cascade" ought to be embraced for what it is - an enlargement of people's aspirations.

An opinion poll for the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment found 59 per cent would prefer to live in a bungalow or village house. They prefer less dense dwellings, both in the suburbs, and also in the inner cities, where more money secures more square feet. But thanks to Richard Rogers' parsimonious green busybodies the official view is that they ought to live in pinched, compacted dwellings - what used to be called "over-crowding".

So John Prescott is promising that the new homes will be built densely, on reclaimed brown-field sites. Rather than embracing the spontaneous movement of aspiring Britons, the government's natural reaction is to fear it, and hem in the desire for living space.

Why? There is no shortage of land. There is a massive surplus of land. Farmers, who hogged fully three quarters of the country in the bygone era of low yields, are now turning over their land to fallow, wilderness and organic hobby farming. Why not build on it instead? Take a light aircraft up over Southern Britain. You will see miles upon miles of empty land, with barely a home in sight.

The Performance and Innovation Unit warn darkly that the "counter urban cascade" threatens the social capital, as incoming ex-Londoners scare off the Cornish locals. "Social capital" is a classic piece of policy-wonk bullshit (for which we can blame American social scientist Robert Putnam). It means that society is terribly fragile and that change will disturb it. So much for performance and innovation.

What we need is a suburban renaissance, with millions of low density dwellings on green field sites, and leave London mayor Ken Livingstone to his over-priced tourist trap.

James Heartfield 16.09.2002, first published in the September 2002 edition of Blueprint magazine

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