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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.