Hardly a day passes without some politician, activist, think tank or journalist announcing that we have to build more houses. Mostly our response is "like duh" as we all know that, for about twenty-five or thirty years, we've failed - every year - to build enough houses to meet the demand for them. There are lots of reasons for this most of which have the words "planning system" somewhere within them.
"But we used to built this number of houses, you know back in the 1950s."
We did and, in the 1950s and 1960s we also built a lot of council houses. In the main these were either built on land cleared as a result of damage caused during WWII bombing or else as a result of slum clearances. In my more-or-less home patch of Penge, the roads around where my grandparents lived (in a house thankfully untouched by the bombs) are filled with blocks of flats built on the land cleared by the Luftwaffe in its failed attempts to destroy the rail infrastructure at Norwood Junction.
In Bradford, where I am now, you'll see a similar load of mostly 1960s housing where decrepit, poor quality terraced housing once stood. Typical of the 1960s this council housing features tower blocks (there are over 30 in Bradford), what are called 'walk up blocks' being lower rise flats and maisonettes in blocks without a lift, and the familiar family three-bed semis often with good gardens.
Which brings us to the latest promises:
Jeremy Corbyn has pledged that a Labour Government led by him would build one million homes in its first five years, including 500,000 council houses.
The Labour leader has said that he would “reverse a generation of underinvestment in housing” that has led to a crisis in the sector. “Decent housing is a basic human need” that successive governments have failed to provide.
Exciting stuff - a dynamic government meeting real social need (and all that guffle beloved of left wing politicians). Except for one small problem, one spotted by planner and blogger, Andrew Lainton:
Whilst welcoming expansion of social housing and council house building what evidence is there that councils and housing associations have a landbank of ‘shovel ready’ sites with planning permission to hit this?
Councils have sold off most easily developable land and most projects by even the most progressive council involve intensification of existing land such as council estates – which take time. Faced with difficult financials and cuts in funding housing associations have run down their land banks.
The fact is such targets could only be hit through private land and there is a huge risk of a public spending induced land price bubble blown up by slow progress on local plans.
This policy is introducing a 1950s level of social housing spending to a teenies level of public sector landbanks, a recipe for disaster.
From a standing start this programme would need to identify land for building, secure public ownership of that land, draw up plans, obtain permissions, contract builders and complete the homes. There really is no way that this is going to happen in five years, especially given that there isn't anything close to the capability or capacity to deliver such a building programme within local authorities and housing associations - let alone national government. And this is assuming there are the workers around to dig the foundations, lay the bricks, dry line the walls, plumb the bathrooms and install the plugs and wires a modern home requires.
Just as with the promises being made by the new Mayor of London - ones he has backed rapidly away from - these promises of rapid increases in rates of house building are not tenable. We need a more open and flexible planning system before we even start talking about accelerating the building of houses. And we need to stop treating private developers as if they are denizens of Hell's lower planes - these are the experts who are going to deliver the housing we need.