Paul Barker: Get building and forget the green belt

The environmentalists are wrong - we must put homes where people want them
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The Independent Online

An Englishman's home may still be his castle, but only if he can afford one. For many people, that is becoming a distant dream. This week the National Union of Teachers (NUT) is calling out its London members on a one-day strike in pursuit of a bigger London allowance. The union says they simply cannot afford to live in the capital. New research from the Halifax, Britain's biggest mortgage lender, adds to the anxieties. It shows that younger people must wait five years longer than their parents did before they can set about buying a home. Prices have run way ahead of their pay.

We are plunging ever deeper into a social disaster, especially in London and the South-east. A ferocious combination of more jobs, more immigration, smaller households and less land is stoking up a bonfire of frustrated aspirations. Last year we built fewer houses in Britain than in any year since 1924. In London house prices rose on avergae by 13 per cent, while in some parts of the North, they fell. The result is socially unjust and ultimately unsustainable.

The debate on housing is smothered in a fog of well-meaning environmental blather. A new study, Land for Housing, to be published later this month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, breaks through the thicket of cliché and finds no solace in the usual stock answers.

Take, for example, the supposed panacea of building on "brownfield sites". This was a leitmotif of the Urban Task Force report, headed by Lord Rogers, the architect. Unfortunately, these sites are often in the wrong place. An old jam factory is where it is because of the special requirements of jam manufacture and despatch. It may not be the best place in which to build an attractive new estate with good public transport facilities. Nor do such pieces of land come on to the market at regular intervals. No wonder that developers are delighted to find that school playing fields and local allotments count as brownfield sites. They are much, much easier to build on.

Nor does the cry raised by Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, supply a workable solution. He wants all new development sites – such as the one to be opened up behind King's Cross station when the high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link is completed – to include a high proportion of "affordable housing". His target is 50 per cent. But many developers see this as a recipe for commercial collapse, and they will be unwilling to give Ken what he wants. Unhappily for the mayor, developers often work in long time-frames: they can sit on land until the political climate changes. And no mayor lasts for ever.

The pressure of housing demand is drastically changing the social geography of Britain. The concentration of pressure is in the South-east, where there are many more jobs than anywhere else. Historically, the build-up of work and population in the North, with the coal-based expansion of industries such as textiles, iron and steel, was an aberration. Before that, the South had always dominated. For several decades this traditional southern dominance has been reasserting itself. The symbolic shift was as long ago as the 1920s when the Cunard company switched its transatlantic liners from Liverpool to Southampton.

There are, of course, economic success stories in the contemporary North. The most solidly based example is Leeds, the home of Direct Line insurance and the first non-London out-station of Harvey Nichols, the Absolutely Fabulous department store. Far more telling, however, are the 4,000 empty houses in the Pennine town of Burnley. Their sale value is virtually nil. Famous once for its cloth, Burnley is now renowned for the race riots of last summer and as the home of the football team supported by Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's official spokesman.

Meanwhile, the South-east is bursting at the seams. Some local authorities west of London are reputed to be trying to deter firms from setting up there because of the lack of houses that staff can afford to live in. It's a nightmare version of the ruminations of George Bowling, salesman hero of George Orwell's 1939 novel, Coming Up For Air. To Bowling and Orwell, the westward spread of London suburbia under the double impetus of new jobs in new businesses (radios, washing machines, vacuum cleaners) and of cheap land, all lubricated by the newly active building society movement, was as loathsome as the pit of hell.

But it made a lot of people happy. With house building now at its 1924, pre-Orwellian level, you can't deny we've put the clock back in pursuit, perhaps, of some vision of a green Jerusalem. The pursuit of somewhere reasonable to live has pushed gentrification within London out into ever more unlikely corners of the capital. When I lived near Stepney Green some years ago, market research companies never included a quota for local respondents in social classes A and B. There were so few of them. Now gentrification pushes out the solid middle: the upper working-class and the lower middle-class, the craftsman and the computer operator. Meanwhile, the poor and the newly migrant can just about cling on to the raft of social housing. But it's harder and harder, even in outer Essex, for the solid middle to find what it needs.

Debate about housing policy goes in circles. A generation ago there was an earlier – and, as it turned out, disastrous – notion that the answer to urban pressures was to build houses and flats closer together. As a counterpoise, Peter Hall, the urban geographer, published The Containment Of Urban England in 1973. Green belts and elaborate planning control had virtues, he argued. But they also made buildable land scarce, and pushed up the cost of houses. And, now, here we go again.

Bigger London allowances of the kind sought by the NUT are not the solution. More money chasing too few goods puts the price up. The only firm answer is to produce more goods, which means building more houses. Prices will then come down, or at least level off, at both ends of the market. This requires breaking the taboo on releasing land. The Rowntree report says bluntly: "The current view that there is a genuine shortage of land is based on a misconception." It also points out that many houses, especially social housing, have been built in the wrong place for the people who want them: in the North rather than in the South.

So some tough political decisions have to be taken. Even the London green belt shouldn't be sacrosanct. Much of it is far from green, and it's more of a corset than a belt. The history of planning shows that we cannot socially engineer consumer preferences indefinitely. Millions of pounds spent on regional policies have not saved Liverpool or Burnley.

The Blair government has little time for history. But it should remember that twice in the past 50 years the Conservatives have levered their way into long periods of power by promising people the homes they wanted. In the 1951 general election the Tories promised to build 300,000 houses a year, and did so: they were in power for 13 years. In 1979 the Tories promised to let council tenants become home owners, and did so: they were in power for 18 years. Despite Labour's dominance, the same could happen again. It's time for the Government to stop sitting on people's aspirations. Labour must think the unthinkable and get more land to market.

Paul Barker is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Community Studies