We must raise our ambition and build many more homes

With a new prime minister, Labour needs to seize the opportunity on housing - including new eco town

From "concreting the countryside" to eco towns: we have come a long way in the housing debate in the past two years. When John Prescott set out his housing plans a few years ago, the government was attacked for proposing too many homes. Now, Gordon Brown's new towns have been welcomed and the government is challenged for delivering too few.

Housing is increasing at its highest rate for nearly 20 years as a result. But we have not yet been ambitious enough. Current targets need to be higher. With a new prime minister, this is the moment to raise our sights. It is also the moment to challenge the Tories on housing - if they want to get serious about the aspirations of the next generation, they need to start backing at local and regional level the new homes Britain needs.

If we don't do more, housing will become the greatest cause of widening inequality over the next ten years. We have an ageing, growing population with more people living alone and the truth is this country hasn't been building enough homes to meet rising demand for decades. House prices have doubled in the past six years and more than quadrupled in the past 20 years, as a result. Talk to young couples from Midhurst to Manchester and you hear how many of them already depend on the Bank of Mum and Dad to get them started. And that's deeply unfair on those who can't get family support.

We need more social housing and shared-ownership homes, too. New social housing is up by 50 per cent in the past three years, but we need to go much further. Over recent years the investment priority has been refurbishing existing council homes. Nevertheless, the urgent need now is for more social housing, with councils and housing associations both able to build more.

The stark evidence of rising house prices is changing attitudes. Several years of concerted campaigning to change public views are making a difference too, as government-backed reports on the link between rising prices and lack of supply are starting to sink in. Websites such as ww.pricedout.org.uk are marshalling the voices of frustrated young first-time buyers. Deputy leadership candidates (all six of them) are calling for more affordable homes.

Zero-carbon homes have captured the imagination, too. The programme to improve design and cut carbon emissions from new housing is one of the most ambitious in the world and is helping to change the politics of housing. Now the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, alongside WWF and Friends of the Earth, all say we need more homes, so long as they are built in a sustainable way.

But this means Labour now needs to seize the opportunity on housing - including new eco towns and bolder plans. Current targets to build 200,000 homes a year by 2016 will not be sufficient to keep up with rising demand. New homes are needed in the north as well as the south. The gap right now between the number of new households being formed and the number of homes built is actually bigger in Yorkshire than it is in the south-east. Further reforms are needed on top of recent planning changes and investment in infrastructure to make sure the homes come through.

Of course the real challenge is still to win the argument for more and better quality homes in every town and community, where local councils play such an important role in delivering (or blocking) development. It is easy to back new homes in principle, while somehow objecting to all the locations in which they could ever be built.

Too often Conservative councils are still arguing strongly against more homes. The Tory-led South East England Regional Assembly has adopted the utterly bonkers position that new house building should be cut rather than increased. So far David Cameron can just about get away with warm words on housing nationally, while his troops block them locally. But with the growing spotlight on housing, such contradictions will not hold. Housing will be the next grammar schools: when it comes to real policy, the Tory reactionaries win through.

Harold Macmillan's Tories would have been horrified at the hostility of Cameron's party towards more homes. In the Sixties, every party campaigned for 300,000 new homes a year. This shows it was possible to build consensus around major housing change. Previous generations managed it because they recognised the shocking consequences of denying families affordable quality homes of their own.

Brown has made clear his determination that the Labour government should make housing the priority now, in order to help future generations. The challenge for Cameron is whether he has the values or the strength to take on his party and join the consensus for more homes.

Yvette Cooper is minister for housing and planning

Yvette Cooper was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 2009 to 2010, and is chair of the Changing Work Centre, set-up by the Fabian Society and Community Union.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

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Puffins in peril

Britain’s best-loved seabird is vulnerable to global extinction.

The boatmen helped us scramble ashore and soon there were 50 people wandering on an uninhab­ited slab of sea-battered dolerite called Staple Island. It is one of the National Trust-owned Farne Islands in Northumberland and among England’s most spectacular wildlife locations. There are 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds here and they were everywhere: at our feet, overhead, across every rock face. The stench of guano was overwhelming.

While the birds seemed to be boundless, the human beings converged on the grassy knoll where the local star attraction resides. It’s the creature that adorns the boat company’s publicity and is emblazoned on the National Trust’s website for the island, the bird that possesses what the poet Norman MacCaig called the “mad, clever clown’s beak”: the pint-sized, parrot-faced puffin.

The British love for this creature is so intense that it is, in essence, the robin redbreast of the sea. Nearly all of its breeding colonies around our coast are tourist attractions. Just across the water, along the shore from Staple Island, is the town of Amble, which holds an annual festival devoted to the puffin. From Lundy in Devon and Skomer in Pembrokeshire to the Isle of May off the Fife coast, or Fair Isle in the Shetlands, trips to puffin colonies are frequent, sometimes daily, events.

“Every tourist shop on these islands sells puffin merchandise – knitwear patterns, tumblers, carvings, coasters, cuddly toys, clothes and, of course, puffin hats,” Helen Moncrieff, the area manager in Shetland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told me.

While the love affair is unquestionable, what seems in doubt is our ability to help the bird now that it is in trouble. Fair Isle once supported a puffin colony of 20,000 birds. In less than three decades, that number has halved. Similar declines have been reported at Britain’s most important puffin site on St Kilda, Scotland, where millions are said to have bred. Now there are fewer than 130,000 pairs, half the total recorded as recently as the 1970s.

The national picture is alarming but the news from elsewhere is even worse. Continental Europe holds more than 90 per cent – five million pairs – of the global total of Atlantic puffins but they are shared primarily between three countries: Denmark (the Faroe Islands), Iceland and Norway. Across this subarctic region, losses have been estimated at 33 per cent since 1979, when monitoring began. But the most striking figure comes from a colony on Røst, Norway, where there has been a fall over this period from nearly 1.5 million pairs to 285,000.

The Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland hold a substantial proportion of the country’s puffins. Since 2005, breeding success there has been almost nil, and a similar failure has recurred on the Faroe Islands for more than a decade. In both places, where hunting puffins was once a staple of cultural life, catchers today have initiated a self-imposed moratorium.

Puffins are long-lived species and a life­span of between 20 and 30 years is not unusual, yet Euan Dunn, principal marine adviser to the RSPB, explains the implications of persistent breeding failure. “Puffins on Shetland or the Westmans may go on attempting to breed for years, even decades, but eventually all those old adult birds will die off and, if they haven’t reproduced, then the numbers will start to plunge.”

BirdLife International, a conservation network that classifies the status of birds worldwide, has reached the same conclusion. It judges that the Atlantic puffin is likely to decline by between 50 and 79 per cent by 2065. The nation’s most beloved seabird has been declared a species that is vulnerable to global extinction.

To unpick the story of puffin losses, marine ecologists have examined the bird’s oceanic ecosystem and looked particularly at changes in the status of a cold-water zooplankton called Calanus finmarchicus. This seemingly insignificant, shrimp-like organism plays a crucial role in North Atlantic biodiversity and has experienced a huge decline as sea temperatures have risen steadily since the 1980s. While the decline of the finmarchicus coincided with swelling numbers of a close relative, this other zooplankton species is less abundant and nutritious.

As the finmarchicus has suffered, so, too, has one of its main predators, the lesser sand eel. And it is this formerly superabundant fish that is the staple food of puffins in many areas of the Atlantic. At the root of the disruption to marine life are the hydra-headed effects of climate change.

Though no one disputes that an important shift is under way in the sea areas of northern Britain and beyond, not everyone agrees that the present puffin situation is a crisis. A leading British expert, Mike Harris, thinks it is premature to designate the bird an endangered species. There are still millions of puffins and, he says, “We need numbers to plummet before we even start to assume that things are terminal.”

Similarly, Bergur Olsen, one of the foremost biologists studying puffins in the Faroe Islands, believes that the talk of extinction is over the top. “The food situation may change and puffins may well adapt to new prey, and then their numbers will stabilise and perhaps increase,” he says.

***

On Staple Island, the extinction designation does appear bizarre. The Farne Island puffin population has increased by 8 per cent since 2008 and there are now 40,000 pairs. This success mirrors a wider stability among puffin colonies of the North and Irish Seas. The distinction in feeding ecology which may explain the birds’ varying fortunes is that, in the southern parts of the range, puffins can prey on sprats when sand eels are scarce. Sprats appear to have suffered none of the disruption that assails the other fish.

But Dunn says it is important to look at the whole picture. “It’s fantastic that puffins are doing well in places like the Farnes, but remember: Britain holds less than 10 per cent of the world total. Also, the declines that have beset puffins in Shetland and St Kilda are even worse for other seabirds.”

The numbers of a silver-winged gull called the kittiwake have fallen by 90 per cent in Shetland and St Kilda since 2000 and by 80 per cent in the Orkneys in just ten years. Shetland’s guillemot numbers have also halved, and the shag, a relative of the cormorant, has experienced falls of over 80 per cent on many islands since the 1970s – 98 per cent, on Foula. Most troubling is the fate of the Arctic skua, which feeds mainly on fish it steals from other seabirds and is reliant on their successes. Its declines are so severe that Dunn fears its eventual loss as a breeding species in Britain.

While there is disagreement about what to call the puffin predicament, there is unanimity on one issue: much of the data that informs the discussion in Britain is out of date. All of these seabirds, which are of global importance, have been monitored decade by decade since the 1970s. Yet the most recent big audit of our cliffs and offshore islands was concluded in 2000. The full census data is now 16 years old. The organisation that underwrites this work is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; it is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has suffered deep budget cuts since the 2008 financial crisis. There is no certainty that another comprehensive census will be mounted any time soon.

“Much is made on wildlife television of how special these islands are for wildlife and how much we care about it,” Dunn says. “In the case of our seabirds, one of those claims is indisputably true. Britain holds populations of some species that are of worldwide significance. But if we lack even basic information on those birds and how they’re faring, especially at a time when our seas are in such flux, what message does that send about how much this country cares? And how can we ever act effectively?”

The plight of the puffin is shedding light on the fortunes of our marine wildlife generally and the shifting condition of our oceans as a result of rising carbon-dioxide levels. Now, puffin politics is also starting to show
this government’s indifference to nature.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue