The drive to densify cities helps neither families nor social mobility
I’ve been in the housing sector for a while now and two things have been constant themes during my time. We haven’t got enough homes and a view that the planning system stops us building more. Both have been debated – well, argued over – for decades. But a new piece of research by the Social Market Foundation entitled The Politics of Housing published with the National Housing Federation recently aims to provide some political insights on why neither has been answered satisfactorily. It explores the last hundred years of housing policy and politics to understand the UK’s growing housing supply problem. It’s a good read.
I might be in a minority of not very many but I’ve always thought the trouble with housing, was not just that we didn’t have enough, but also that they were in the wrong places and of the wrong type as well.
I am against the narrow debate that says if something was designated as green belt in the deep and distant past, it’s untouchable in the 21st century
Most people ultimately want houses, not flats, and all families should have houses, with gardens as well. Space is apparently good for kids and for social mobility, literally and metaphorically. However, constrained land use means we build up not out. London becomes a compact city, with unsatisfactory and cramped housing. I head down to Poole or up to Sheffield and I whisk through vast swathes of leafy and unused green suburb and countryside. Great to visit, a bit of a pain for a commute. Now I’m not an advocate of bulldozing the green belt. The countryside is both our heritage and our legacy, so we should cherish it, nurture it and pass it on to future generations. But I am against the narrow debate that says if something was designated as green belt in the deep and distant past, it’s untouchable in the 21st century.
And it seems like Nick Boles, the TCPA and Lord Wolfson of retailer Next are in the same place. Credit to them. Touching this subject is never going to be voter gold, but it does need tackling. With political parties seeing that building out rather than up means that you can build more and faster, there is now a debate about a new generation of garden cities that takes us back over 50 years, to a time when we built enough homes to meet need.
Is there a sell for existing communities that fear a massive building programme will devastate their communities? Well when I hear stories of families whose children say they have nowhere to live and the statistics for overcrowding are on the increase, a new approach to planning and land use might just help hold communities together rather than pull them apart.
Steve Douglas is a partner at housing and regeneration consultancy Altair