Whatever became of Gordon Brown’s eco-towns? They were, after all, his grand idea for providing affordable homes. Various sites were selected across the country, most of them over the hills and far away, where construction companies would then start building new communities from scratch. Except, to my knowledge, eight years later, work has begun on only one of these sites. The eco-towns are eco-absent.
I mention this because of George Osborne’s housing announcement yesterday. In most respects, it is nothing like Brown’s scheme. It is simply an extension of the Government’s existing policy for starter homes. Before, this only applied to brownfield sites. Now, it will apply to the greener turf around rural hamlets. Construction companies will make savings if they append affordable housing to villages, and these savings will be passed on to first-time buyers in the form of a 20 per cent discount on the cost of a home. This is much less Soviet, and therefore much more achievable, than the Brown approach.
And yet, and yet, I couldn’t help thinking of eco-towns when the announcement was made. Why? Mostly because of the tension that Paul described recently: “If localism rules, not enough homes will be built. If enough homes are built, localism won’t rule.” This starter homes policy goes out of its way, much as the Brown Government did, to abide by the dictates of localism. It follows the guidance around rural exception sites, by which local authorities consult with local homeowners to identify local land that might be built upon, before any actual building is done. A multilateral foundation is regarded as stronger than a unilateral one.
But then there comes a point where a Chancellor just wants some affordable housing built. Jaw-jaw must give way to wooden-floor and composite-door. In Brown’s case, this came when he picked those sites for eco-towns, despite disgruntlement from many quarters. In Osborne’s case… well, it remains to be seen. The Chancellor has already made provisions for central government to take over housing developments when local authorities are deemed too slow or too intransigent. Whether these will apply in the case of rural starter homes is unclear, but the underlying question remains: what happens if villages can’t agree on their own expansion?
This is why the most telling passage of Osborne’s joint article with Liz Truss, yesterday, was that “the lack of housing in rural areas is a scandal.” A scandal. Presumably, scandals cannot be permitted to stand. The Chancellor appears to be signalling that he will step in, as arbiter and executioner, if this one abides.
There could be another tension shared between Brown’s eco-towns and Osborne’s starter homes. It’s one of supply and demand. We all know that there is immense demand for a greater supply of affordable housing – but is this the right supply to satisfy that demand? This was the question that I asked about eco-towns at the time. Young people want to live somewhere, but they may not want to live in out-of-the-way places with inadequate links to the cities that provide so many jobs. The countryside might be too isolated for them.
The current Chancellor would point out, as he does in his Daily Telegraph article, that about 60,000 more Brits are moving into rural areas each year than moving out of them. But, so far as I can tell, the report that gives that figure doesn’t break it down by age. Are young people really upping sticks for the sticks? Or is it actually retirees and aging hippies? I’d appreciate it, genuinely, if anyone could enlighten me. All I know is that folk aged under 45 account for less than 50 per cent of rural populations. In urban areas, it’s 60 per cent.
That said, it makes sense that first-time buyers would seek the relative good value of the countryside; particularly now that so much work can be done from anywhere with an internet connection. But will a sense be enough for Osborne’s purposes? Rural areas might demand a little more if they are to agree to housing developments sharpish.
None of this is really to criticise Osborne. It’s encouraging that – against the general swell of politics – he’s trying to do something for young people. And it’s also encouraging that he isn’t neglecting the green spaces in between the powerhouse cities. The “10-point plan for boosting productivity in rural areas” that was published yesterday contains more sections than just one on housing. Nine more, in fact. There are promises of Enterprise Zones and better broadband connections, apprenticeships and childcare. The Chancellor is working towards a country where anyone can live and work happily anywhere.
But, as Brown and many politicians before him have demonstrated, housing policies often go awry. Even when they succeed in delivering more homes, they can fail in other ways. This is the prospect that faces Osborne now. He might end this scandal that he describes, but he might also tarnish this Government’s localist credentials in the process. It is a peculiar mix of bravery and foolhardiness. We at ConHome would urge a mite more finesse.