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.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

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.