Empty promises

Observations on Housing

Three million new homes in Britain by 2020, says the Prime Minister. Those large, fat, round numbers are so authoritative, so, well, goddam big, aren't they. And, after all, Gordon Brown is a dab hand with figures, so he must know what he's on about, surely. One problem: there is no "housing shortage", at least of the kind set out with mind-numbing frequency by the government over the past few years. But there really is a feverish craving in Whitehall to believe that a cataclysmic shortage does exist. And it's a contagious delusion, despite the fact that homes for millions already exist.

One study of the vast amount of unused or empty property around Britain by housing consultant Ann Petherick, based on several towns in the north-east, has clear findings. Her work - focusing solely on vacant accommodation above commercial premises - indicates that unused flats above shops and offices could, if "freed up", provide housing for at least half a million people. The actual figure is likely to be far higher. So who owns this wasted living space? Around 80 per cent is in the hands of absentee landlords, whose only concern is to generate income from the letting of ground floors. Even the ongoing property boom has failed to open up these spaces for residential use.

The case of a village in Hampshire points to what could be an even greater scandal.

Allbrook, population around 2,000, is not a rich place, nor is it poor, pretty or ugly. It is, however, the scene of a particularly representative battle between developers and conservationists. At one end of the village is a boarded-up ancient farmhouse that was, in the 1600s, the home and studio of Mary Beale, Britain's first fully professional woman artist. The developer that owns the land and house is seeking to build a mini housing estate on its remaining unspoilt meadowland, up to the very fringe of the old building.

An unlikely alliance of nature conservationists, local people, feminist historians and art experts is far from pleased. Yet, the developer is able to argue that he is merely providing much-needed new housing, while the local council, Eastleigh, is itself already under pressure from Whitehall to pave the way for hundreds of new homes in the borough.

It's a familiar pattern, but one set to multiply a thousandfold if Brown's vision of three million homes by 2020 is to become bricks and mortar. But take a walk around Allbrook and you'll notice about half a dozen empty houses, some vacant, apparently, for a very long time. Indeed, the number of empty houses in the village is virtually the same as the number of new houses being proposed next to the historic farmhouse. You don't need to be Gordon Brown to do the maths: one ordinary village, half a dozen empty houses; 20,000 villages in Britain. That's 120,000 unused homes - and this is without factoring in unused housing in towns and cities.

Soon after the Prime Minister's new cabinet was announced, the Home Builders Federation greeted with euphoria the news that Brown had appointed Yvette Cooper as minister for housing - "a welcome step forward in the drive to deliver much-needed new homes", the HBF trumpeted. The minister might set aside some time, between friendly meetings with the nation's house-building companies, to peer out of her ministerial car window. Perhaps she will then notice that a large proportion of houses and flats, potential homes for literally millions of people, are empty. Then again, perhaps she won't.

Robin Stummer is the editor of Cornerstone architecture magazine, http://www.spab.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pink Planet