Bicester, city of the future. Image: Charlie Davidson on Flickr, licenced under creative commons.
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Garden cities are a distraction – but the government's plan to build homes isn't

The government has named Bicester in Oxfordshire as its second garden city, but to solve the housing crisis, we’d need to build six or seven of them every year.

This article was originally published on the New Statesman's sister site about cities, CityMetric. Follow it on Twitter @CityMetric

Much excitement this morning over the fact that the government has named Bicester in Oxfordshire as its second garden city. Bicester, which is conveniently placed for commuting to both London and Oxford, is to get an extra 13,000 homes, almost doubling the size of the town in one fell swoop.

This is obviously an exciting and/or horrifying development for those who live in Bicester; it's rather less world-shaking for basically everyone else. One commonly cited estimate for the number of houses Britain needs to build each year to keep up with demand is 243,000: around 100,000 more than we've managed in each year of the last decade. So, to put today's news in perspective, here's the one-off expansion of Bicester as a proportion of the homes we need to build each and every year.

Actually, though, after 10 years of not-enough--building, we've already got a backlog of 1m homes to get through, so here's Bicester as a proportion of that.

Bicester is only one of three proposed garden cities, of course: the others are at Ebbsfleet, Kent, and Who-the-hell-knows, TBC. These will each feature "at least" 15,000 homes, so once completed, however long that takes, they'll account for slightly under half the extra houses we need to meet one year’s demand.

In other words, for garden cities to solve the housing crisis, we’d need to build six or seven of the things every year. This is clearly not something we're going to do. The contribution garden cities will make to fixing this mess will be tiny.

The government's National Infrastructure Plan, published today, does mention other strategies intended to solve the housing crisis. They include:

  • releasing public land for 150,000 homes during the five years of the next parliament;
     
  • supporting the extension of the London Overground to Barking Riverside at the cost of £55m, to support 11,000 homes;
     
  • supporting the regeneration of Brent Cross in north London (that's another 7,500).
     

In all, the government says, it'll allocate £957m of capital to deliver 275,000 affordable homes during the course of the next parliament. That's 55,000 a year. Which sounds impressive, until you remember that:

a) The government has delivered between 40,000 and 60,000 affordable homes every year since 2005, so it’s not that impressive after all; and

b) we need to build 243,000 homes every year.

Today's announcements do, however, include one piece of good news for those who'd like to see the housing crisis solved – and, to be fair, it's a biggie. The government is getting back into the house building game for the first time in decades. And if it goes well, this won't be the last time. From the Treasury:

The government [will] master-plan, directly commission, build and even sell homes. A pilot programme on a government-owned former RAF base in Northstowe, near Cambridge, will see the Homes and Communities Agency leading development of 10,000 homes.

This is probably not the harbinger of the sort of major government building programme Britain saw after World War One: rather, it looks suspiciously like an attempt to turn up the heat on the private sector. Some have speculated that housebuilders' desire to keep sale prices high has been trumping their incentives to increase volumes. Increased competition might change that.

As chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said this morning: "The message to the housebuilding sector would be simple: if you don't build them, we will." Ignore Bicester – this is the real housing story today.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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