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30 September 2002

Sorry, but we don’t want to live in flats

Ken Livingstone's vision for London is yet another example of how planners resist giving people the

By Paul Barker

A little warning from history. As an issue, housing has, for years, mouldered near the bottom of electoral attention (as transport used to). But remember: the Tories twice rose to power, from previous election plights, on the back of promises about houses. In 1951, they promised to build 300,000 houses a year. Harold Macmillan, housing minister and future prime minister, delivered. Outcome: 13 years in office. In 1979, they promised every council tenant the right to buy. Margaret Thatcher delivered. Outcome: 18 years in office. In a democracy, alongside any musings about alternative philosophies, a party must offer some simple, understandable bribe in order to win. For the Tories, the focus on housing goes right back to the party’s rethink after Attlee’s landslide victory. In a speech in 1946, Anthony Eden spoke about building “a property-owning democracy”.

Today, restriction is the motto. Housebuilding is perceived as evil – and especially the kind of houses most people might want to live in. John Prescott may make pronouncements about housing targets, but they are never met. In 2001, we built fewer houses than in any peacetime year since 1924, which was when the great inter-war housing boom began. House prices chart the bizarre consequence. They have reached ludicrous heights. In London last year, the price rise averaged 13 per cent. This year, some forecast 20 per cent. As a general economic rule, if demand pushes prices up, the way to zap them down is to increase the supply. Restrict the supply and prices will continue to rise.

George Bowling, the salesman anti-hero of Orwell’s 1939 novel, Coming Up for Air, would revel in the way things now are. For him, every new cheap estate, giving people the houses they wanted, was a close approximation to hell. The novel was published at precisely the moment when campaigners’ restrictive determination to avoid “bungaloid growth” crystallised. In 1947, the Attlee government delivered the restrictive goods. Its Town and Country Planning Act nationalised development rights. This is the only significant nationalisation left in place. It protects haves against have-nots.

Housing policy is fraught with sheer wishful thinking. Much of it stems from a panic about land. But On the Move, a recent study of the housing market by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, stated authoritatively: “The current view that there is a genuine shortage of land is a misconception.” It is more a question of what land should be used for: bleak fields of agricultural set-aside, for example, or sites for housebuilding?

Wishful thinking comes in all shapes and sizes. One is the recurrent mirage of prefabrication. But this only saves money if the units manufactured are identical, and if the factory can always run flat out. Change the specifications, or pay assembly workers for down time, when the line doesn’t run at full speed, and the equations collapse. Bricks and mortar, laid by a self-employed workforce, are quicker, more flexible and cheaper.

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Another slice of wishful thinking is that the panacea is to build on so-called “brownfield” land. The snag is that this land is often in the wrong place. A sugar factory was built where it was for good industrial reasons. It is not necessarily in the right place for new homes. If we do build here, the upshot may look fine for a while (as tower blocks once did), but the houses risk degenerating into slums as it becomes clear that they are mislocated for jobs, transport, schools and healthcare.

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The greatest monument to wishful thinking is Ken Livingstone’s new London Plan – otherwise known as the “spatial development strategy for Greater London”. The draft, published this summer, is out for “consultation” until 30 September, before being set in concrete in 2003.

The issue could hardly be more important. London and its surroundings (from Oxford to Colchester, and from Cambridge to Crawley) are where the main pressure on housing is focused. In Burnley, by contrast, as the BNP fought to win council seats, there were 4,000 empty homes. In Manchester and Newcastle, they are pulling down solidly built 1950s council houses because no one wants to live in them. No regional planning policies have managed for long to shift the economic migration to the south-east which began, symbolically, in the 1920s, when Cunard switched its transatlantic liner route from Liverpool docks to Southampton. Edinburgh and Leeds are important exceptions, as thriving financial centres. People inevitably go where the jobs are. That mostly means: go south.

In a self-publicising preface, Livingstone says that the plan is “my vision for London”. But as I ploughed through it, I kept wondering: just who is Ken Livingstone, to tell us how we should live? His 402-page diktat speaks, at one point, of people’s “wish for greater control over one’s own life”. The plan, it also says, “should not aspire to dictate lifestyles”. But it does. Its language drips with political correctness and eco-rhetoric. Its saving grace, perhaps, is that it is so full of wishful thinking that little or none of it will ever happen.

The population of London is rapidly rising. The plan says that this must all be somehow slotted into the existing boundaries of the Greater London Authority. (But why?) Brownfield sites, it is stated, are going to supply the sites to build on, especially in east London. (But the alarm is already being raised about building in flood plains.) If space is tight, the plan has an inventive new piece of jargon: “intensification”. (But how does this differ from cramming in?)

One recurrent theme in the plan is the need for “affordable housing”. By this, Livingstone means social housing. He won’t be buying any land to bring this about. Instead, he wishes to impose on developers and on the 32 constituent boroughs a requirement that any new schemes should include between 35 and 50 per cent of such housing. It is a guarantee of confrontation with the boroughs. For the developers, it is another Livingstone tax. The upshot will be delay: boroughs and developers will sit tight, and wait for the mayor and policy to change. Livingstone’s plan also presupposes a huge increase in Treasury investment in London. This includes an estimated extra £6bn in subsidy from the Housing Corporation. Of this there is no sign whatsoever.

No housing policy will work which is not based on real social facts, rather than on wishful thinking. One social fact is that, as people get older and acquire young families, they tend to want a house with a garden. This usually means buying one. In turn, this usually means leaving the middle of town for the suburbs.

We do not, fortunately, run a Soviet-style economy, with Gosplan directing everyone where they should work and live. Social surveys show what the population’s real aspirations are. These are unequivocally not for flats in “intensified” corners of cities. Ironically, as back-up to this year’s Housing Design Awards, the government-appointed Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment decided to run an opinion poll on real- life design choices. The top marks went to the design that all architects and planners despise: the bungalow. Jon Rouse, the commission’s chief executive, said in response: “It is pretty much what we expected . . . but the reality is that this is not possible.”

Like Livingstone, the commission knew best: more brownfield, fewer bungalows. Over in the real world of social facts, as the Rowntree Foundation study noted, all the efforts spent on conserving the countryside mean that its magnetic attraction as a place to live (or, at least, have a second home) increases in direct proportion.

Another social fact, which goes unmentioned in Livingstone’s plan, is that London’s population increase is largely migrant- driven. The number of people leaving London is just about matched by the numbers arriving from abroad (including Europe and the white Commonwealth). The rise in population comes about because recent migrants are usually younger than the population average. They are more likely to have children. Sometimes, also, they have cultural reasons for preferring large families.

Does public policy demand that they should all be shoved together in rented flats in an “intensified” inner city, from which the better-off will flee at weekends to their Norfolk or Suffolk cottages? You will search in vain in the London Plan – or in most discussions about housing – for answers to such questions. But migrants’ aspirations are much like everyone else’s. Shouldn’t people be able to live, as far as possible, where and how they wish? Who else should decide?