Gordon Brown’s Great Eco-Towns Con

The PM is proposing new zero-carbon towns to make up for his government’s kneejerk hostility to real housebuilding. It’s too little, too late.

Last month, Gypsies built a camp near Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire, England; it became pressworthy because Tessa Jowell, a government minister, has a home there. Though the local Tory councillor has tried to turn opinion against them, the Gypsies own the land, which they bought from a farmer. They have put in a septic tank and put up fences. They are just people trying to deal with the shortage of places to live. What they do not have is ‘planning permission’ – the say-so of the high and mighty town councillors.

Under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, owning land is not enough to be able to build upon it – you need planning permission. Since 1955, Britain’s towns and cities have been surrounded by ‘Green Belts’ to limit urban sprawl. Building on the Green Belt will be denied planning permission. Since the 1969 Skeffington Report, planning decisions also rest on local views – giving ‘not in my back yard’-ers a veto on new homes. In 1998, the Urban Task Force commanded that only land that had already been built on (‘brownfield’ as opposed to ‘greenfield’ land) should be developed.

This extensive system for the prevention of housebuilding was policed by a score of ‘concerned’ pressure groups. The Campaign to Protect Rural England, English Heritage, the Urban Task Force, the Greater London Authority, the Campaign for Architecture in the Built Environment, the Tory Shires, the Green Party and a host of other campaigners seemed to group together to stop new homes being built.

Guess what? It worked. Housebuilding slumped to its lowest level since the Second World War – 160,000 homes a year by 2000, compared with 450,000 a year in 1967. Still, at least the government was building some homes, you might say. Unfortunately, however, you need to build around 240,000 each year just to replace the ones that need to come down. What’s more, changes in family size and immigration meant that we needed more homes, not less.

The shortage in houses built came at the same time as cheap mortgages. You did not need a GCSE in economics to work out what would happen when supply was limited but demand was growing: prices rose. Today, Britons have £4 trillion invested in their housing stock. Imagine any other sector that absorbed £4 trillion in investment and at the same time saw its output reduced to a third of what it had been.

It is because not enough homes are being built that people like the Warwickshire Gypsies are forced to break the planning law. They are following the example of Gypsies who did the same in Essex five years ago. Gypsies are not the only ones finding it hard to match their lives to the dictates of the planning law. Janet and Tony Wrench lived for years in their eco-house in the Pembrokeshire National Park before they were evicted for breaking the planning law. In Walthamstow, London, I found a family of East Europeans living in a garden shed. In Chichester, a Woodcraft Folk summer camp was refused permission to set up tents in a field they had been visiting for years because they ‘did not have planning permission’.

The success of the anti-housing lobby was so overwhelming that the government started to get nervous. Somehow unaware that they were the ones who had blessed this system of preventing homes being built in the first place, government officials reacted against the consequences of their own policy. ‘Why are developers not building homes?’, they asked. Unwilling, though, to dismantle the extraordinary machinery of housebuilding prevention, they created other mechanisms to compensate by boosting housebuilding in specific locations.

First they identified the Thames Gateway as a priority area (even though it is a floodplain, and mostly derelict land). But – lo and behold! – once they named it a priority for growth, what little housebuilding was taking place there ground to a halt. Later, John Prescott, then deputy prime minister and secretary of state for transport, the environment and the regions, set up a key-worker housing scheme to help firemen and nurses on to the housing ladder. Its conditions were so onerous that the take-up was too small to count.

UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s latest wheeze is the eco-town. This policy is designed to square the circle of a commitment to defending the countryside against expansion, while also getting new homes built. Of course, the policy is all things to all people, which is the same as being nothing at all.

The opponents of any new homes being built are not fooled. They scoff at the eco-towns, making the point – rational in its own insane terms of reference – that the towns we already have are quite enough of a disturbance to the ‘eco-system’. Like previous commitments to new building, all that the announcement has done is provoke a caterwauling of complaint from the usual moaning minnies who make up the green-leaning commentariat.

There is, sad to say, little danger that any new homes will get built. Like previous announcements, the eco-town proposal is so heavily hedged with conditions that developers would be daft to take them on. Why should they? They make a mint selling the tiny number of homes they do build at inflated prices.

The only answer to the housing shortage is to abolish planning permission by repealing the Town and Country Planning Act. Some people say there is nothing wrong in principle with the Green Belt, it is just how it has been applied. In fact, the Green Belt has been applied in just the way it was intended: as effectively a toffs’ barricade against the great unwashed. By the same token, I guess there is nothing wrong with immigration laws, too, if only they were not designed to bar immigrants.

The idea that there is not enough land for new homes is so wide of the mark that even the Campaign to Protect Rural England has stopped its speakers from arguing it. Only one tenth of Britain is built up. You could expand our towns and cities by 20 per cent, and still make no dent in the amount of countryside available.

Some people think that the credit crunch will make cheaper houses available. Prices might well start to fall (though so far they have barely done so). But since the background is reduced availability of credit, lower prices will not mean greater availability of houses – they will be cheaper, but you will have correspondingly less money to buy them. How could it be otherwise? The underlying problem of not enough homes being built has not been addressed. Indeed, fears over the housing market have led to a drop in the number of homes being built.

The Green Belt and planning laws are a clear example of the way that green policies are damaging people’s lives – not at some future date, but right now. Instead of attacking the Gypsies in Warwickshire, maybe we should follow their example. They have had the courage to put their own families before a cruel law. People struggling to find a home today could do a lot worse than to buy up surplus farmland cheap and build their own houses.

spiked debate: In association with Clarke Mulder Purdie, spiked will host a debate titled ‘Time to build on the Green Belt?’ between 6.30pm and 8.30pm on Wednesday 30 April at The Building Centre on Store Street in central London. Speakers include author Tristram Hunt, Paul Miner of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, architecture writer Penny Lewis, and urban developer Michael Owens. Buy your tickets here.

James Heartfield is a director of Audacity.org. His new book Green Capitalism: Manufacturing Scarcity in an Age of Abundance is available to buy directly from his website at www.heartfield.org. He is debating the Campaign to Protect Rural England on 24 April in Bristol at the Architecture Centre, and on 22 May at the Manchester Society of Architects.

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield exploded 15 myths about housing and rejected the government’s divisive housing policies. Dave Clements argued that Britain’s housing crisis was built on the the failure of the political imagination. James Woudhuysen said Gordon Brown is building on Blair’s small-minded approach to housing. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and planning.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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