The dangers of Brownfield Brutalism

New Labour’s narrow vision for infrastructure causes overcrowding and inflames the Malthusian idea that there are ‘too many immigrants’.

UK chancellor Gordon Brown always seems immersed in a never-ending and never-delivering programme of reform in the public sector. As part of this reform he plans to sell off £30billion of government land and building stock by 2010. No doubt property companies will scoop it all up, especially as both state land and the structures built upon it will be situated in New Labour’s favoured ‘brownfield’ sites, rather than ‘greenfield’ ones.

While Brown’s sell-off might sound like a lot, it is nothing against the £6trillion total assets of the UK – a full 59 per cent of which are in housing. At the end of 2005, the asset value of housing had increased by four per cent in just one year. By contrast, the value of plant and machinery in use – the net capital stock of the country – has risen just six per cent over five years (1).

British capitalism’s preference for ageing one-off homes, and its relative disdain for new, mass-produced machines, now runs so deep that it is affecting all areas of the economy.

From the City to the city

Some of the big increase in housing asset values is a direct outcome of the skewing of the British economy towards the City of London. The City’s role as a centre of global finance means that demand for the kinds of houses that suit international bankers exceeds supply. More than half the houses sold for more than £2million in central London last year were sold to foreigners. As downtown areas in the nation’s capital become ever more expensive, so property feels a ripple effect from Putney to Walthamstow.

The other origin of house price inflation, however, is broader, and is strongly mediated by the British state. Appeasing the property-owning English middle classes, the green lobby, the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the government insists that newly-built housing confine itself to brownfield sites.

Britain’s antiquated planning system is always absorbing yet more government guidance on housing design, energy use and all the rest. But it gets more Byzantine each year for a reason: to make houses more difficult to build. In particular, the government will not allow working-class people to spread out and invade Britain’s green and virgin soil.

The government prefers to cram people it regards as plebs into transport-free cities that are more and more tightly packed. Land must not be claimed, cheaply and easily, from nature. Instead, it must be expensively and with great effort ‘reclaimed’ from horrid, man-made contamination.

As prices for houses around East London’s Olympic Village will soon attest, the result is, once again, that the demand for a decent home with reasonable transport links far exceeds supply. It has long been evident that the Thames Gateway area, billed as Europe’s largest housing development, will in fact see relatively few new homes built (2). But it has now become clear that the 40-odd overlapping quangos responsible for the Thames Gateway have, to all intents and purposes, turned it into the London Thames Gateway. An area which was supposed to fan houses out to the east coast will confine them to the east of the nation’s capital.

Powered by green dogma, the government’s rush for brownfield development is truly zealous. Some 74 per cent of new dwellings in England are now on brownfield land (3). By reaching this figure, the government is, in 2006, far exceeding its own target for 2008, which was that 60 per cent of new-build should by then be brownfield (4).

What an achievement! This is a beating of targets of which Joe Stalin would be proud. But through its eagerness to achieve high levels of housing density, the government also fuels the current wave of Malthusian sentiment around the issue of immigration.

Not overcrowding or overpopulation, but Brownfield Brutalism

As Neil Davenport has pointed out previously on spiked, today’s elite outcry over levels of immigration panders to the backward idea that society’s problems are caused by there being too many people. But a recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, a London think-tank, has just highlighted a related but highly important issue. ‘What will bring the worst of all worlds’, its chief executive Douglas McWilliams writes, ‘is to have the immigration but not the infrastructure, which will condemn all of us to traffic jams, rising house prices and overcrowding in schools, hospitals and elsewhere’ (5).

We can leave Mr McWilliams to his own views on immigration. But his point about infrastructure is absolutely right. In certain local authorities, services such as education and health may well be unprepared for a relatively rapid build-up of local concentrations of immigrants. But in relation to accommodation, it is not the immigrant influx that leads to the perception that Britain is overcrowded and overpopulated, so much as the government’s fanatical pursuit of high density in housing – a kind of Brownfield Brutalism that would condemn us all to a nicely designed broom cupboard. I am always suspicious of the view that the white working class feels itself ‘swamped’ by immigrants. But to the extent that towns – Dover, for example – feel this way, it might be apt to blame, not immigrants, but the government’s failure to fund expanding infrastructure and greenfield housing.

Ministers fairly crow that the average density being achieved across England is now 42 dwellings per hectare (6). Indeed, Yvette Cooper, minister for housing and planning, has boasted that while densities were ‘only’ 25 homes per hectare in 1997, New Labour can now build 1.1million homes ‘on less land than the previous government set aside for just 900,000 homes – saving an area of greenfield land greater than the size of Oxford’ (7).

But what is a hectare, anyway? It is 10,000 square metres. So 25 dwellings per hectare of land in 1997 = 400sqm for each dwelling, or a land area of 20x20m. And 42 dwellings per hectare in 2006? That’s 238sqm for each dwelling – in other words, little more than 15x15m of land.

This is a really drastic reduction in living space – and New Labour has achieved it in just nine years. Today, when so many of New Labour’s policies increase urban atomisation and anomie, we are forced into a cheek-by-jowl huddle of smaller and smaller flats, at bigger and bigger prices. And then New Labour has the nerve to turn around and blame a surge of Rumanian criminals as a threat to Britain’s social fabric.

Plenty of land for millions of immigrants

Like Gordon Brown’s sale of public sector assets, and like green efforts to conserve energy, the rush for brownfield land in fact produces very few savings – in this case, of greenfield land. Why? For two reasons. First, Britain is already predominantly green. Brownfield land is so modest an expanse that even the tightest patterns of house-packing can, at best, free up little land for greenfield status. Second, the government, not content with restricting people’s ability to find housing, has anyway long been busy creating new green pastures.

Take Yvette Cooper’s saving achieved by going brownfield – an area ‘the size of Oxford’. That turns out to be a saving of 3,300 hectares (8); in other words, a colossal 0.01 per cent of the land cover of Great Britain.

On top of that, the government has already been adding more land for the Green Belt: a total of 19,000 hectares between 1998 and 2003. A further potential 12,000 hectares of Green Belt has been proposed in emerging development plans (9).

As it happens, 19,000 hectares is an area the size of Liverpool. So the Green Belt, which we are always being told is on the point of being ‘concreted over’, has actually undergone an expansion that is modest, but much bigger than Cooper’s Oxford-sized ‘saving’ of greenfield land through Brownfield Brutalism.

It bears remembering that the land cover of Great Britain is 23.5million hectares, used in 2002 as follows:

intensive agricultural land – 10.8million hectares, or 45.96 per cent;

semi-natural land – 7.0million hectares, or 29.78 per cent;

woodland – 2.8million hectares, or 11.91 per cent;

settled land accounts for 1.8million hectares, or 7.65 per cent;

water bodies – 0.3million hectares, or 1.28 per cent;

sundry other categories – 0.8million hectares, or 3.42 per cent (10).

If settlements are added to the ‘sundry’ component (largely transport infrastructure such as roads and railways), then built-up Great Britain consists of about 2.3million hectares, or just 10 per cent of the land available. But in terms of ‘settled’ houses and workplaces, the figure is actually well under 10 per cent – it’s 7.65 per cent. In terms of housing alone, it must be heading towards five per cent, or lower, perhaps.

But there is more. It turns out that more than half the land cover of England – 55.2 per cent of the most urbanised part of the UK – is officially ‘designated’ as more or less untouchable: it is of special scientific interest, a special protection area, a special area of conservation, an area of outstanding natural beauty, a National Park, or a part of the Green Belt (11). In fact, among countries belonging to the Organisation of Economic and Commercial Development (OECD), the UK as a whole has about twice as high a proportion of protected land as the average (12).

Everything is already being done, and then some, to ring-fence the pastoral idyll of the property-owning classes.

We can now see just how immature Ruth Kelly’s call for a ‘mature’ debate about immigration really is. Even when we omit Dartmoor, Snowdonia and other great swathes of beauty, Britain has room enough for immigration. But in practice, government policy continues to ensure that housing is both a growing symptom of the British economy’s narcissism, and something that is powerfully hard for anyone – immigrant or not – to get hold of.

The British economy is narcissistic because its whole focus is on face, not on the creation of genuine wealth. ‘Look at me!’, cries the City to international money capital: ‘Come into my parlour.’ ‘Look at me!’, cries Britain’s housing stock: ‘I am an ageing legacy of the past, but the government guarantees that I will always cost you more and more money.’

It is well known that the Treasury gains revenues of £5.5billion a year from Stamp Duty (13) – and that, as house prices rise, more and more buyers find themselves paying out higher rates of Stamp Duty on the purchase of a new home. At the same time, however, government policy always favours speculation and inflation in housing. By expanding further and higher education to millions of students, New Labour has given investors in the Buy-to-Let market a relatively secure source of regular rents; rents that are usually backed by parents. That has helped create landlord borrowings of £17.5billion in the first half of 2006 alone (14).

Loans and mortgages around housing are what Gordon Brown should really be talking about. There were 11.6million mortgages in Britain, worth a total of over £1trillion. In June, first-time mortgages ran at nearly 40,000, and in July, first-time housebuyers were prepared to pay a record 3.24 times their income for a home (15).

Young couples are desperate to buy their own place. But now that they have to save an average of £29,000 cash to secure it, more and more have to rely on the assistance of their parents (16).

For the middle classes and a fair bit of the working class, housing has become that much more central to students, newlyweds and parents. For fortysomething parents, indeed, ‘parenting’ is an issue that, to a large degree, revolves around housing. And as if that were not enough, Blairite ex-minister Stephen Byers has confirmed the centrality of housing to family discourse in the UK by setting a hare running about the abolition of inheritance tax, most of which revolves around houses. Alasdair Darling, tipped as Brown’s successor at the Treasury, has repudiated Byers. But whatever the outcome, Britain’s preoccupation with the money tied up in housing promises only to grow more intense.

Too few houses

Britain’s problem is too few houses, not too many immigrants. Nowadays, all roads lead to housing – even if none of them are real roads. In more than seven years, from 1997 to 2004, New Labour has managed to build just 145km of new motorways. It has blighted rural areas with a colossal 400km, or 250 miles, of A roads. And in urban areas it has managed just 99km of A roads (17).

No wonder people feel congested in cities, and cut off in rural areas. The genuine wealth that investment in new infrastructure represents is not part of Gordon Brown’s brief. He would rather delude himself, and us, that he is taking what he calls ‘tough’ choices; choices, he says, that will ‘safeguard stability’.

His choices are not tough. They are all too easy. Sooner or later, Brown’s choices will bring financial and social instability.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester and a columnist at IT Week. He is speaking in the session Putting design and technology to good use at the Battle of Ideas in London in October 2006. Visit his website here.

(1) Housing assets are worth £3,575billion; total net UK assets of £6,012 billion. All figures from ONS, ‘UK worth £6 trillion: Increase of £119 bn on previous year

(2) See James Woudhuysen and Ian Abley, Why is construction so backward?, Wiley, 2004

(3) Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), ‘One million new homes could be built on brownfield land’, DCLG News Release 2006/0086, 29 August 2006

(4) Yvette Cooper, speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research, 13 July 2005

(5) Quoted in Jamie Chisholm, ‘Population put at extra 1.4m’, Financial Times, 28 August 2006

(6) Speech by Lords planning minister Baroness Andrews at the Royal Town Planning Institute Convention on 29 June 2006

(7) Yvette Cooper, speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research, 13 July 2005

(8) DCLG, Factsheet 6: greenbelt direction and density direction, 24 January 2005

(9) Ibid.

(10) National Statistics, ‘Woodland Increasing – Amounts and conditions of habitats in Britain’, 14 August 2002

(11) Kate Barker, Barker Review of Land Use Planning: Interim Report – Executive Summary, 5 July 2006, Table 1: Designations and other land uses in England, p7

(12) Ibid, p7, quoting OECD, Environmental Data Compendium

(13) ‘Stamp duty nets £5.5bn a year’, Daily Mail, 1 November 2005

(14) Council of Mortgage Lenders figures, quoted in Robert Budden, ‘Rate rises will put some on the rack’, FT Money, 26 August 2006, p4

(15) Council of Mortgage Lenders, ‘First-time buyers stretch even further to get on to the property ladder’; and CML, ‘First-time income buyer income multiples highest on record, says CML

(16) Robert Budden, ‘Rate rises will put some on the rack’, FT Money, 26 August 2006, p4

(17) Department for Transport, ‘TSGB Chapter 7: Road lengths - data tables. Public road length: by road type: 1994-2004’, Table 7.8

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