Since it was published on this site last Monday, there has been a huge amount of interest in Neil O’Brien’s column, which documented flaws in the Government’s housing White Paper. In his piece, O’Brien criticised an algorithm that will be used to decide how many houses should be built in different parts of the UK.
Algorithms aren’t exactly in the nation’s good books anyway, given the confusion over recent A Level results. But members of the public will be even more wary upon understanding what this latest one could mean. Lichfields, a planning consultancy, has predicted its practical impact (something people usually only discover the hard way), with some astonishing findings.
As O’Brien says of the consultancy’s analysis: “in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.”
Furthermore, the algorithm suggests a “lower number than their recent rate of delivery” for some areas, including Sheffield, Bradford, the entire North East, Nottingham and Manchester. These effects are hardly a winning formula, and there are already signs of Tory resistance.
Indeed, The Times reports that in his video conference with 17 Tory MPs from the greater London area on Wednesday, Boris Johnson was warned that the algorithm risks “destroying suburbia” and “creating the slums of the future”, and that reforms will cause “real harm to the Conservative vote”.
As we’ve seen this year – from difficulties with Huawei to Johnson u-turning on free school meals after Marcus Rashford wrote a letter to MPs – this Government is not immune to having to massively rehaul its policies, and it seems unlikely the algorithm will be accepted, based on the statistics in O’Brien’s article.
Even so, there is no shying away from the fact the country urgently needs hundreds of thousands more houses built, whether it’s an algorithm that designates their location or not. It is interesting to note the objections in the aforementioned video conference, where there were fears about areas becoming built up, and MPs concerned about losses to the Conservative vote. The latter is inevitable, anyway, if the Government does not help my generation (millennials), and those below it, for whom buying a home looks about as probable as winning the X Factor.
One interesting question in all this – which no algorithm can predict – is how Covid-19 is going to change the housing landscape. Clearly many have left cities in favour of space and country air. Whether this change is permanent remains to be seen, but boosting figures in shire and suburban areas may not be such a bad thing, as is the algorithm’s south-centric model of growth in Britain (where, in truth, much of demand is focussed).
As a 31-year-old renting in London (who has somewhat given up on the prospect of home ownership), the Government reforms were the first thing I’d seen to show that MPs actually care about fixing this problem; one that is giving people my own age real anxiety about the future, from whether we will ever have families, to wondering how old we will be when we stop sharing with X amount of strangers.
Of course, any flawed algorithm must be untangled and corrected. But let’s hope that Johnson’s video conference isn’t a taste of kicking the can further down the road. Whatever solution the Government takes to fix the housing crisis will not be perfect. But the worst will be to do nothing at all.
As a government source reportedly said: “This is not something we’re going to step away from. We’ve got a duty to do this for the next generation.” Indeed.