The coalition government has announced that it plans to build an extra 200,000 new homes, significantly on freed up government brown belt land, which the government is very keen for us to see a sign of its new-found munificence in the face of its deep spending cuts. Brown belt land itself is land that has previously been used for any purpose and is no longer in use for that purpose, which is a pretty broad criterion.
Political motives aside, housing is a key social issue for the UK. There are not enough houses to go around, at the moment, with research showing, over the past 40 years, that those living in high-rise properties are more at risk of drugs and gang-culture influence. The number one priority, therefore, is to make sure there are, in the words of John Betjeman, homes on the ground for everybody, and that housing is no longer a luxury. Moreover, housing prices are still stupidly inflated in order to prop up the asset-based economy, destroying the hope of first-time buyers.
Housing is an obvious argument, isn’t it? It is such a fantastic political policy, too: it creates jobs for wavering voters, it usually increases house prices in an area (Victorian architecture is more appealing to the majority than new builds), and it has a deadline for completion of around 4-5 years for a whole development, the average term of a government. So, if it fails then jobs are created, housing prices boom, and the next government will have to pick up the pieces… Idle speculation or is this an indication of the truth?
The last Labour government spent a lot of their 1997 manifesto (do read!) talking about housing, without actually giving any facts or figures, or giving an indication as to how this would be achieved. Not unusual for a party manifesto, and the subject was only really addressed in 2004, by John Prescott of all politicians. Thousands of new homes were promised at a price-tag that was incredibly attractive to first-time buyers: £60,000. Ten out of twelve government-backed developments did go ahead and were completed, which is good, but the actual market decided the price of the properties. So, all that attention on a £60,000 price tag was meaningless as properties ended up with an average of over £200,000, even though the real build-price had been £85,000 – a brilliant profit by private companies, heavily subsidised by state funds…
…unwanted and unused land near town and cities…
Will this government, with its ties to big business and development in different industries, be of more use? Well, to start off with, 200,000 new homes is nothing to write home about – government figures show new yearly housing fluctuated between 170,000 and 220,000 right up until the Recession. What is potentially more exciting is the government’s allowing of brown belt land. Could new towns and cities be created? Well, at 200,000 new homes, perhaps one or two, but with all the infrastructure spending new towns and cities need, it would cost the same as an unnecessary, unfathomably expensive high-speed rail network, and there aren’t many of those around. Oh, no wait… More likely, unwanted and unused land near town and cities (brown land) will be used, adding severe traffic to overburden infrastructure (I don’t just mean travel, but sewage, water, and gas, too).
In reality, this policy is there to appease Tory voters, as it is reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s policy of a home for everyone, while it screams salvation to Liberal MPs, desperately trying to win back the younger vote. It is also a policy that doesn’t face opposition from the Labour party, as they can hardly object to new housing, and this government has far more political ammunition to use against the Labour party, on the same subject, even if it tried. In short, we do need more housing, but we need it to be daring and properly assessed, not seen as an addition to existing and overused systems and facilities Unfortunately, this definitely isn’t what this new coalition policy is all about; they prefer the short-term crowd pleaser, short-term fix.