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.