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More destructive than the Luftwaffe

John Prescott is going to destroy large areas of England with new homes, even though more than 700,000 properties — enough to meet housing needs for the next four years — lie vacant. Rod Liddle urges conservatives to resist the terror

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

John Prescott is going to destroy large areas of England with new homes, even though more than 700,000 properties — enough to meet housing needs for the next four years — lie vacant. Rod Liddle urges conservatives to resist the terror

According to our government, there is a shortage of affordable housing in this country, and particularly in the south of England. As a result the government, in the redoubtable, if humorous, figure of John Prescott, intends to build hundreds of thousands of new houses every year in order to meet this perceived ‘demand’. Soon, everywhere you look south of the Wash there will be a profusion of stark naked Barratt estates, each consisting of 200 homes, every dwelling of which will — by law — possess a disabled-access ramp and — by dint of fashion — a covered car port and eight square yards of lawn. Chav City cometh, every eight miles.

If this is an exaggeration, it is not much of one. Mr Prescott has already identified four areas where he will bung in most of the houses — the Thames ‘gateway’; around Ashford in Kent; a square of Northamptonshire near Milton Keynes; and a soon-to-be-benighted area which will henceforth be known as the A11 Conurbation (sounds lovely, doesn’t it?), stretching north for 60 miles from London to Peterborough.

But that’s not all. The government has also accepted en bloc the recommendations of the Barker review final report, which swallows whole the absurd — and elsewhere discredited — notion of ‘predict and provide’ and recommends, among other things, a loosening or ‘greater flexibility’ of planning constraints. These ‘constraints’ are in fact the locally considered responses to proposed new developments, which have hitherto prevented hideous new bungalows being built in your neighbour’s back garden. Kate Barker recommends that such localised, selfish nimbyism be ignored and the bungalows built regardless of local opposition.

The government’s response to an apparent demand for more houses is not a conservative response. Nor for that matter is it a Green response or a socialistic response. It is a congenital idiot’s response. In a fair world it would provide the opposition parties with a platform on which to campaign against and unseat the government — but for some reason the opposition parties seem reluctant to take up the fight, except for the Greens. The reason for this is that everybody else has accepted the shibboleth: we need more new houses.

The Barker review, published earlier this year, recommends the building of an additional 120,000 homes every year, on top of the 170,000 per year now being built. That’s two new Middlesbroughs springing up in Surrey or Kent or Wiltshire every year (for these developments are intended to be primarily in the south of England). Except, of course, that these new towns won’t be as pretty as Middlesbrough, with its dignified and forbidding Victorian public buildings, organic mix of period housing styles and architecturally interesting, if useless, transporter bridge. They will instead be towns from the pages of a forgotten J.G. Ballard dystopia. And they will stretch from Bodmin to Boston, an extra 30 square miles of factory-fired faux-brick and tinted concrete and disclosed plasterboard — plus, of course, the inevitable local infrastructure — every year. For as long as it takes for the housing market to be bucked.


The surprising thing is that while the opposition parties also seem to have swallowed the notion that we need to build —and build and build and build — the experts have their profound reservations. The general concept of predict and provide is now almost universally accepted as being inherently flawed. The early response to congested roads, for example, was to build new and bigger roads; but suddenly it was realised that this generous provision of ring roads and motorways and bypasses created more and more traffic; i.e., it actually exacerbated the problem. In other words, the demand expanded to fill the increased supply — and so the policy was by and large discontinued. So it should be with housing, where precisely the same economic factors apply. The British population is not increasing exponentially; it is scarcely increasing at all. Rather, there is a ‘perceived’ demand for more houses, because people these days wish to live alone. They are apt to leave the family home earlier, marry later and then, with a crushing inevitability, divorce more regularly. This is why those new homes are demanded: not increased population but a change in the social demographic. This magazine has a distinguished history of opposing government attempts at social engineering, so this is perhaps not the place to suggest that the causes for the demand for new housing, rather than the effects, be addressed directly by the state. But equally there is no reason why we should support a government that wishes actually to encourage a social trend which will result in our southern counties being turned into a sort of continuous patio, with pine-effect decking, from Sheerness or Cromer in the east to Newquay or Radnor in the west. And our people to be insular, alienated sociopaths.

The government says that it wishes new building to take place primarily on brownfield sites. But it says this in the same way I say, each morning, that I wish to live a rigorously moral life — and with about as much conviction. The truth is that were everything equal, the government would prefer that houses were built on brownfield sites rather than on nice clean green fields where actually everybody would prefer to live. Much in the same way that contestants for Miss World announce that they wish to see peace on earth, goodwill to all men and an end to war. And of course, this being the real world, everything is not equal. In a study carried out at the end of last year by English Partnerships, it was estimated that only 11 per cent of the land earmarked by the government for the proposed development along the Thames ‘Gateway’ (that’s Essex to you and me) was actually viable for new housing. The rest of it lacked the infrastructure: in other words, nobody would build there because people would not wish to live there. Unless some big capital project funded by central government was undertaken first.

And this brings us to the next — and most surprising — reaction from the experts and the concerned parties to both the Barker review and the government’s position generally. Of all the organisations and pressure groups in Britain, you might expect the House Builders Federation, which is the voice of Barratts and Costain, to be the most gung-ho for ripping up the Green Belt and depositing slab after slab of cheap concrete. And essentially you’d probably be right. The HBF believes that there is a shortage of supply of houses and that ergo something must be done. It also insists that the shortage of supply of houses in the last few years has been down to an ‘anti-developmental’ mentality within the UK and is plainly delighted to see that the argument now seems to be won by those who wish to build and build.

But even the HBF views the government’s position now as contradictory. It would rather build on brownfield sites, its people assert, but the government will not put its money where its mouth is.

‘The government has been channelling taxpayers’ money into short-term schemes which will make the problem worse, in the long run, rather than better. It is a wholly contradictory policy,’ says the HBF spokesman, Pierre Williams.

What Williams is referring to is Prescott’s exciting ‘Starter Homes Initiative’, whereby so-called key workers — nurses, policemen, teachers, tabloid journalists, Pilates fitness instructors, escort girls, etc. — receive enormous inte
rest-free loans to buy houses or flats in places where the market would normally prohibit them from doing so. ‘The money should be spent,’ says Williams, ‘on making the brownfield land viable for housing, providing the roads and the schools which make living in those areas a desirable and economically viable proposition.’

Meanwhile, the Federation of Master Builders seems even more opposed to the current policy. ‘We don’t have the physical space for the new homes demanded by Barker and the government,’ its spokesman, Andrew Large, insists. ‘The first thing we need to do is look instead at renovation of existing properties.’

And now we come to our map, which is The Spectator’s alternative to the Barker review. How many unoccupied homes are there in England? Certainly enough to meet the housing demand for the next four or five years. According to the Empty Homes Agency, some 718,720 homes in England are now waiting to be occupied and, through calculated guesswork, there are another 90,000 in Scotland and Wales, for which the Empty Homes Agency has no jurisdiction.

The argument against renovation is that the existing homes are in quite the most ghastly places, where people would not wish to live — but the map does not bear this out. At least 255,000 of the homes now unoccupied are in London, the south-east or the south-west of England — the three most sought-after areas, in which people clamour to abide. Furthermore, another 130,000 are in the West and East Midlands, the designated growth areas for new houses, and a further 63,000 around Chelsea-sur-Mer in East Anglia. That’s approaching half a million homes in areas where there is a demonstrable need.

So why then do we not renovate our existing housing stock? The Barker review, after all, says that this is what we should be doing even before we pave Wiltshire. Partly it is down to economics and, once more, a failure of government imagination and policy. Here’s a simple analysis: VAT on new-build properties is, as they say, zero-rated. To renovate an existing home VAT is pegged at 17.5 per cent. Renovating those unoccupied homes is not an economically attractive proposition —and it is not an economically attractive proposition because of government policy.

As the Campaign to Protect Rural England frequently points out, there is an anomaly at the heart of the government’s, and Kate Barker’s, argument. There is a raw surplus of dwellings over households, and what’s more, this surplus has increased — not diminished — in the past decade. Nor is the apparent high price of houses simply a reflection of a shortage of supply, but a demand-side phenomenon driven ‘by factors such as people’s changing expectations of their future wage or employment prospects’. In lieu of major party opposition, meanwhile, the Greens argue for an end to the ‘predict and provide’ strategy, including the ‘proposed expansions in airport capacity, roads, ports and large-scale private housing developments’. This seems to me a conservative argument as well as a Green argument — and also an economically literate argument. And so the terrible notion of actually voting for them draws nearer by the second.

Mr Prescott’s plans for southern Britain will turn our rural areas into a sort of uncomfortable and hideous version of Middlesex, devoid of tranquillity and solitude and, more than anything else, devoid of beauty.


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