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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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.