Natalie Bennett: Our housing crisis can be better solved

Click to follow
The Independent Online

So, finally, reluctantly, George Osborne has decided to boost spending on housing projects in order to create jobs and provide a financial stimulus to someone other than his millionaire mates. Here we have a range of measures that bear the half-baked stamp we have come to expect from the Chancellor. He's going to do something to tackle the housing shortage.

But that something is to allow developers to hack into invaluable green-belt land, to drop rules demanding that social housing be built alongside the private, and to put government guarantees behind new homeowners. What is most likely to be created is identikit suburban enclaves of expensive detached homes, predominantly in the southeast of England. These enclaves are likely to be car-dependent, and at the outer limits of energy-use regulations if David Cameron's choice of new planning minister Nick Boles is a guide.

Not content with squeezing down wages as fast as possible in the Chinese direction, Cameron wants to model our planning rules on those of China. And as anyone who's ever visited Beijing will tell you, that's worked out really well if you like endless traffic jams, concrete jungles and gross overdevelopment.

If you want, however, to protect the farmland that we need to grow food for our own consumption in a world market that's increasingly volatile, building on the green belt is not the way to go. Dealing with the housing crisis is urgent. But we should be using brownfield land, sensitive suburban extension and infill, refurbishing existing buildings and thinking creatively about how we can ensure people are living in homes the size they want. If their houses are too big, can we build or refurbish appropriately sized homes that are local, attractive, well-serviced, desirable?

A sustainable approach would boost housing co-ops and community land trusts – legal structures that ensure homes remain in social use in perpetuity and that the people who live in them retain control over their lives and the chance to contribute to their community.

Yet the Government announcement only provides for 15,000 homes – a tiny fraction of what we need, but the sum they are contributing is getting developers off the hook. The Green party's fully costed 2010 general election manifesto allowed for £4bn to be spent in 2011 alone on building council and other social housing – seriously tackling our current critical shortage.

And then there's the critical issue of regional policy. While in some areas of the UK, homes to rent are snapped up with desperate speed, in other parts of the UK economic decline has left large numbers of solid, potentially comfortable homes empty, the value of the asset usually declining fast. We urgently need to rebalance our economy – creating jobs in the North, the Midlands and Wales through investment and policies to develop co-ops and community enterprises such as renewable energy generation, encouraging the return of farming and craft, and rebuilding local economies towards greater self-sufficiency in a low-carbon world.

And ultimately, there are broader issues to address than funding. The Government should be introducing a land-value tax and improving conditions for tenants of private landlords, who shouldn't be able to find themselves thrown out on a whim.

Eventually, we need, through these and other measures, to get back to the point where a flat or house is truly a home, not primarily an "investment", a prohibitively expensive gamble, or a hopeless dream.

Yesterday's moves don't bring us one single step closer to that, but there's no reason why we shouldn't think seriously about how that could happen, with a Government focused on human wellbeing not corporate profits, and prepared to take steps to plan sensibly for the future. We are now creating structures that should be in place for the next century and more – as so much of our existing housing has been. Once it is there, it stays. Let's get it in the right place.