Cllr Andrew Wood is a Tower Hamlets councillor.
“Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by overcrowded homes. Therefore a Conservative and Unionist Government will give housing a priority second only to national defence. Our target remains 300,000 houses a year….In a property-owning democracy, the more people who own their homes the better.” Conservative Manifesto, 1951
Winston Churchill’s government went on to deliver those 300,000 homes a year. as Andrew Gimson has previously written on this site. It is a rate of construction we are still nowhere close to matching, even though demand is greater today.
My ward is delivering new homes – indeed, so many new homes that it will become denser then Manhattan or anywhere else in western Europe which will generate unique problems. The population of 12,500 when I was elected in 2014 will rise to around 40,000 people, possibly much more. We are achieving those numbers by building residential towers of 75, 68, 67, 63, 58, 55 storeys in height, plus a whole gaggle of 40-something storey towers. But I do not think my ward is the model on which to base a sustainable solution to the national housing crisis.
So how then could the rest of the UK deliver the new homes we require? We have been making incremental changes for years, and it is now time to get radical – otherwise what was the point of Brexit? The party that can deliver new quality affordable homes will guarantee its hold on power for years. We broadly have two options;
First, the free market. Remove all restrictions on planning: no more green belts, no more local plans. No planning applications. If you own land, go ahead and build. Eventually the market would deliver new homes, as it did in the 1930s around London. That would solve some problems, but create new ones. I do not sense the country is ready for such a radical change and the transition from planned to unplanned would be messy. So if that is not an option, what can we do?
The second option is to copy an idea from another small island. An island where 82 per cent of homes are built by the state, but 90 per cent of those homes are owner occupied. A true property-owning democracy. And also one of the most economically successful states in the world: Singapore. (Indeed, it is so successful that many Singaporeans can now afford to buy property in my ward.)
But Singapore is simply copying what previous Conservative governments have done, which is for the state to directly deliver hundreds of thousands of new homes. The state should take on the role of developer, and set up a new organisation like the Singapore Housing and Development Board, dedicated to the delivery of new homes and infrastructure.
In 1981, Margaret Thatcher and Lord Heseltine set up the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). We need a modern day equivalent, but one with even greater power and resources with a mission to deliver new homes. But it needs to go one step beyond what is being done at Ebbsfleet: we also need to commission new residential homes, and not just the accompanying infrastructure. By using new manufacturing methods, we can keep down costs. Pension funds can help fund these projects, as the rental payments from the new residents (or purchase) will generate a long-term return. Those payments should one day convert into home ownership, as these do in Singapore.
Local Councils lack the scale and expertise to do this at the scale required, although they have a role in developing smaller schemes. Private sector developers will continue to develop sites, and the 1950s showed an increase in the delivery of new private housing, alongside the delivery of new state-built housing, so the two can co-exist.
But we also need to learn some lessons from the past. Many of the 1950’s built homes were of poor quality, and the LDDC did not build enough infrastructure up front to support growth. So the maintenance, infrastructure (physical and social) and security for each area must be planned up front. We should be able to learn those lessons if we involve the local community from the beginning in what we do. In this twenty-first century, we can aspire to building durable, quality, good-sized homes, given the range of experience our architects, planners and developers now have. We have organisations such as Create Streets, New London Architecture, Centre for Cities, Future Cities Catapult and many more who have a wide range of ideas on how to deliver new strategies.
Until we do something radical, we will continue to spend too much of our disposable income on housing; too many families will have a poor quality of life in cramped homes; we won’t have enough homes in areas with lots of jobs and we will continue to suffer from low productivity due to long commutes. And we are spending £25 billion a year on housing benefit.
“Therefore a Conservative and Unionist Government will give housing a priority second only to national defence”: those words from 1951 should be in the Conservative manifesto of 2017 as well.