Housing stagnation is hardly a surprise

We need to change our housing policy to improve the quality and quantity of what is built.

The release of the 2011 figures showing stagnation in housing construction is unsurprising. Since the mid-Nineties, house prices have tripled but the number of new homes being built has fallen. This is seriously dysfunctional and is primarily due to a series of overlapping policy failures.

Firstly, there is our planning system. We release too little land for new homes: the amount of homes we built in the 2000s was the fewest since the war, and less than half of what we built in the 1960s. We preserve giant fields of wheat or low grade farmland, yet only 10 per cent of England is built on. We destroy gardens and build tiny homes, and then complain that this country is too cramped.

Our planning system also leads to poor quality housing, creating understandable NIMBYism. The current plan-led system of allocating land and housing has reams of quality control dictating what new development must look like. It fails. Almost everyone would rather live in a building built before our 1947 Town and Country Planning Act than after it. We have created a system where once developers have paid for land and made a payment to the council to obtain planning permission (entitled Section 106), they are probably out of pocket to the tune of £50,000 to £100,000. On top of that, people are so desperate for a home you can put up almost anything and make a profit. And instead of homes being what people want, they must satisfy council planners.

Allied to planning is the bubble created by our banking and finance system. By the peak of the bubble in 2007 around 75 per cent of all bank lending was going to property, almost all speculation. The only parts of the world that didn't see a property bubble were outside the euro and released enough land to keep housing costs close to construction (largely in the Southern US)." Banks funded a self-perpetuating bubble on the back of inelastic land supply.

Currently, our planning system allows developers to make abnormally high profits, which they choose over better homes or increased supply. Mortgage lending is up, while business lending falls. Land is still too expensive. Meanwhile nearly 10 per cent of mortgages are in forebearance even with interest rates at 0 per cent -- but everyone pretends the show must (and can) go on. We are repeating past mistakes.

In the last couple of years Policy Exchange has argued for a series of changes to accelerate the provision of new housing, from converting derelict office and retail space to allowing new large-scale suburbs and new Garden Cities supported by local people. We support a move away from the top down council-led planning system. Instead, we propose that local people can block development if 50 per cent vote against it. We also propose compensation for green field development along with parks and more green spaces attached to new development. We need fewer 500-page, incomprehensible council plans and more land released for attractive development with attractive green space attached.

This could be a key plank of the growth strategy that the government urgently needs; particularly as it would see construction accelerate most around the future growth hubs like Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds, York and London. We pretend we are desperate for growth but refuse to allow it where business needs it -- accelerating the shift of economic power to Asia.

Nothing that the government has proposed so far will shift the essential fundamentals. Unless the relevant Ministers, Greg Clark and Grant Shapps, are preparing models that will change things (that won't blow up when interest rates normalise), we can expect this situation to continue.

Alex Morton is a senior research fellow at Policy Exchange

 

Alex Morton is a senior research fellow at Policy Exchange

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.