Since the 1930s, bad planning has destroyed swathes of our most precious heritage while causing economic damage that, by some estimates, exceeds that of the second world war. We will end the disaster only if we learn from past mistakes.
The current war about housing targets and ‘concreting over the South East’ is the latest in a long line of — generally successful — revolts against government housebuilding plans. In the 1940s, jeering protestors coined the name ‘Silkingrad’ for housing minister Lewis Silkin’s new town of Stevenage. In the 1980s, Nicholas Ridley’s controversial boost in housebuilding was reversed when he was replaced by Chris Patten. And in 2010 the backlash against Labour’s regional targets led David Cameron to abolish them.
The English government’s long, bad record of deciding where people should live starts with Edward III’s Statute of Labourers, which met aristocratic complaints about rising wages after the Black Death by banning labourers from moving around the country to get better terms. The Georgian settlement laws that allowed internal deportations were hardly an improvement.
The golden age for central planning was, however, the 20th century. The Barlow Report of 1940 had grand ambitions to rebalance by largely banning business and housing expansion in the South East and the Midlands. But banning more homes in Birmingham did the same thing as Edward III’s Statute: it stopped workers moving to better jobs. That folly caused inestimable damage to Birmingham, the Midlands, and the British economy. It excluded millions who could not find homes in these areas from the opportunities they might have seized. And by creating labour gluts in areas with fewer business opportunities, it forced down wages there — meaning that, perversely, it increased regional inequality.
This is the legacy of 80 years of attempting to ‘rebalance’ by banning new homes near to where businesses see the best opportunities: national economic growth is suppressed, the economic opportunities of millions of young people are curtailed, and regional inequalities in house prices and incomes are heightened. Since governments began attempting to rebalance the country, the gap between South Eastern and Northern house prices has widened massively. But despite this record of failure, many today are still trying to ‘rebalance’ by blocking more homes in the places where people most want them. Yesterday's Times warned of the 'threat' that the government's planned 400,000 new homes pose to rural England.
The largest source of resistance to housebuilding is of course people’s dislike of what gets built. House building can be done well. Bloomsbury and Chelsea were once fields; Clerkenwell and Soho were once grubby illegal suburbs of hovels and shacks. Over centuries, those were replaced with Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian buildings, some of ethereal beauty. This ancient process can be seen all over Europe, from Siena to Amsterdam, from Lisbon to Edinburgh. If the community chooses to add more homes well — replacing unloved buildings with magnificent, popular new heritage — few will regret it.
The problem, of course, is that so much of what we build is done badly. Few today trust the planning system to do as well as the great estates of 18th and 19th century Bloomsbury and Marylebone. Existing communities tend to hate the homes that are imposed on them from above.
Hope that the current government will escape this disastrous pattern lies in its interest in the alternative approach advocated by Sir Roger Scruton. Scruton proposed a way of saving valuable countryside, avoiding inappropriate high rise, and ensuring that local communities drive new homes where they're most needed because those homes will enhance their lives and the places where they live.
His solution was simple. London's great estates — built by aristocratic families like the Cadogans, the Portmans, and the Grosvenors — are now fragmented but communities remain. Neighbours still know each other. And they know better than anyone what will improve their street. If we give residents the power to set the rules for what will be allowed on their street — extensions, or more ambitiously new terraced houses, or even mansion blocks like the glorious Edwardiana that bejewel central London — they can take their share of the benefits while ensuring that more homes improve the place.
That will let communities meet the government’s desired housing numbers without risk of bad development imposed against local wishes. By placing power in the hands of communities, it offers an alternative to the state’s unhappy record of making decisions about where homes should be built.
Scruton’s solution, then, is the philosopher’s stone by which the government can achieve its ambition of letting young people aspire to homeownership again, protecting precious countryside — all while ensuring that local people support new development. We were good at building beautiful and prosperous towns for many centuries: we need to re-enable the historic processes that created much of what we cherish in this green and pleasant land.