‘Concreting over the countryside’? Actually we’re building less than ever

September 7, 2012

There have been a rash of pieces in the papers recently about how the government is planning to build masses of houses and abolish the countryside. This morning Anthony Horowitz was on the case, arguing that:

“Once the concrete has been laid, the new houses built, the fields and woodlands laid bare, there will be no going back, that the short-term policies of today’s government will be with us for generations.”

A scary thought. Likewise, ministers want to talk up confidence in the economy, so boast about housing numbers. Eric Pickles was at it yesterday. He told the Commons.

“House building starts across England were 29 per cent higher in 2011 compared to 2009.”

That’s perfectly true of course. But we need to keep things in perspective here. 2009 was the all-time low, and compared to the past we are now building a piddly number of houses.

Here is housebuilding since the Coronation:

The next chart zooms in on the most recent period. These are the number of new starts in England up to the second quarter of 2012 (UK data lags by half a year).

In the last couple of quarters the number of new homes being started has been heading back towards an all-time low.

There is absolutely no chance that this government will “concrete over the countryside.” (In fact only 2% of England is built on.) A more realistic danger is that it will preside over the lowest levels of housebuilding since the war.

Fears that Britain’s countryside is about to be swallowed up by a building boom are misplaced. But angst about planning is not.

Britain has got trapped in a terrible cycle where we haven’t built enough, and the homes we have built are too small and often ugly. This makes housing and everything else more expensive. But politicians have then reached for crude solutions: trying to just bulldozer through more building, rather than trying to address people’s legitimate concerns, or compensate those who lose out from development. But trying to ram through more building (with Regional Spatial Strategies and the like) has failed again and again: it just makes people more likely to oppose new development. My colleague Alex Morton has looked at how to break out of the destructive cycle.

Prince Charles was right about the “monstrous carbuncles” that planners and architects have thrust on us for decades. But the current planning system is the problem, not the solution. Because it’s hard to get permission to build, developers cram in as many houses as possible when they can build, creating the sort of developments that people don’t want near them. By driving up the price of building land, they’ve pushed down the quality of the buildings on it. Trendy planners want to force us all to live in high density flats, rather than the green suburbs with gardens that most people want. And by hemming in our towns and cities with planning rules, they’ve force the in-fill of the valuable green spaces in our towns and cities (like school playing fields). They’ve made sure more kids will end up growing up in high flats without gardens. Do we really want to keep doing what we’ve been doing?

With a new planning minister and a new housing minister there is the chance for a fresh start. And there are signs of a fresh approach. One obvious thing to to would be to make it easier to turn empty office properties into housing. But town hall bureaucrats often prevent this, so we end up building on green fields while buildings lie derelict. I had thought that the government had bottled out of standing up to local authorities on this, but reading Eric Pickles’ speech yesterday. it now seems like they might do the sensible thing after all. Perhaps things are looking up.

The article originally appeared on the Daily Telegraph’s website

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