Fifteen myths about the housing crisis

Government slothfulness, combined with the green lobby's snobbery towards the masses and their 'ugly houses', is the cause of Britain's shocking homes shortfall.

James Heartfield

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Too few new homes are being built in Britain to meet a combination of rising demand and the need to replace crumbling existing housing stock. The consequences are astronomical house prices and a generation struggling to afford any kind of a home. Anti-development campaigners and government policy are holding back the house-building programme so desperately needed. Here, James Heartfield, author of Let’s Build! Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years, tackles the many myths about Britain’s housing crisis.

1) The government is concreting over the countryside

When polled, people think that around one half of Britain is built up, one half countryside (1). That number is wildly off-target. The real number is one-tenth built up, nine-tenths not. There is no threat to the countryside. Just imagine for one moment, you could double – yes double – the number of homes in Britain, and still the countryside would cover four times as much land as the towns and cities. Of course, there is no need to double the number of homes. I estimate that we need another five million, which is to say about 20 to 25 per cent more homes than we have now. In fact, less than one per cent of land goes to homes every 50 years (2).

2) The ‘green belt’ is being worn away

Between 1979 and 1993, the green belt – the undeveloped area surrounding cities – doubled in size. Since 1997 it has grown by 64,000 acres. Today, the green belt covers around 13 per cent of England. Far from shrinking, the land area that is protected, including green belts, national forests, areas of special scientific interest and so on, is expanding decade by decade as more and more farmland is retired from use. If just a small proportion of this land were earmarked for development, then we could have enough homes for everyone.

3) Britain is overcrowded

There are more people per acre in Britain than in America, Africa and Australia, but less than in Holland or Belgium. Britain, though, is by no means overcrowded. Its cities are getting a little denser than they used to be, because of the policy that stops us building new homes in the countryside. In absolute terms, we have plenty of space. What people generally mean when they say that Britain is overcrowded is that they feel distaste towards the kind of people they see around them.

4) Too many homes are being built

The number of homes being built is at an historic low – its lowest since the Second World War. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) disputes this fact, saying that more have been built since construction reached its absolute lowest in 2001. But the small increase in new homes being built still leaves us way below the levels of previous decades. House completions in the UK have fallen from over 400,000 per year in the late Sixties to well under 200,000 per year in the current decade. It is not enough.


UK house completions (thousands)
source: Office of National Statistics

5) More homes are being built, now that the government has acted

Top-down hectoring did whip up some new building, but this small increase has not been maintained. In the year to June, completions were only up by two per cent, but more alarmingly, new starts are down by eight per cent (3). The trouble with the government proposals in this area is that they generally create more barriers to development, even when they say they are liberalising.

6) Enough homes are being built

Almost every report gets this wrong, because they fail to take into account the fact that houses have to come down, as well as being built. It is no good counting the new builds and thinking that they are a running total. Over time, even the best-built homes must come down. The CPRE assumes that in England, with a housing stock of 21million, just one million homes will be demolished every 40 years. At that rate, it would take 840 years to replace Britain’s housing stock. Does anyone really believe that all the houses built today will stand for 840 years? (4) It would be more realistic to assume that houses would stand for 100 years, in which case in England alone we need to build 210,000 homes just to replace the existing stock, before considering the additional demand. In fact, completions in England have not been higher than 167,000 in the past 10 years.

7) We can build houses to last

The CPRE says it does not matter that Britain’s housing stock is the oldest in Europe: it just reflects the fact that Britain industrialised earlier. But the reason that Britain’s housing stock is ageing is because it is not being replaced. We are sweating dilapidated housing. Not demolishing older homes is the way that the shortfall in new homes being built is absorbed. But every year that we fail to build enough houses to retire the old ones, the housing stock gets more run down, damp and dangerous.

8) We don’t need any more homes

Instead of predict-and-supply, say greens like Mark Lynas, we need to restrict the demand on new homes. ‘Addressing this doesn’t mean forced sterilisations or a Chinese-style, one-child policy’, writes Lynas, having clearly thought about ‘Plan B’, ‘but it does mean giving incentives for people to have smaller families and addressing rising levels of immigration’ (5). Well, Lynas might want to join the anti-immigrant British National Party, but there is no need to. There is plenty of land to build on, without making a dent in the countryside, and there are plenty of people to do the building. The only barrier is the one that his friends in the CPRE lobbied to have put in place, the green belt.

9) We can build our new homes on ‘brownfield’ land

Under the advice of Richard Rogers’ Urban Taskforce, the government committed itself to building most homes on land that has already been developed and is now derelict, ‘brownfield’ as opposed to ‘greenfield’ development. Now, in London and other major cities, homes are being crammed into every available space that falls vacant. The BBC reports ‘garden grabbing’: ‘a rash of flats and new houses replacing gardens in high-price areas.’ (6) Shame-faced at their own role in this reinvention of Victorian overcrowding, the CPRE has amended its support for ‘brownfield development’, but still thinks this can be done without overcrowding (7).

10) Urban regeneration is the answer

Britain is overwhelmingly a suburban country. Most people live in the suburbs. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, supports those campaigning to save the countryside from sprawl. That is because he wants to keep London densely populated to increase both his political and revenue base. To achieve that he has forced through lots of gardenless, dormitory-style flats, some unfortunately signposted as ‘key-worker housing’. And though newer immigrants naturally need to keep close to job prospects, Livingstone cannot prevent the ‘counter-urban cascade’ of people leaving London for the suburbs. While five per cent of England’s population live in rural areas and nine per cent live in the ‘urban core’, 43 per cent live in the suburbs and another 23 per cent live in suburban/urban areas.

11) More social housing is the answer

A few people have looked at the shortfall in new homes and concluded that the decline is due to less council housing. That is not quite true. In the mid-Eighties, the private sector took up the slack, and in the Sixties, both boomed. It should not matter whether homes are public sector or private, but there is good reason to distrust the call for more social housing. Those who call for more council housing do so because they want to keep control over people, and do not trust them to make their own choices about where to buy. The green lobby supports council housing in the same way that the gentry supported almshouses for the poor – to keep them securely locked up, away from the toffs’ country houses.

12) New homes are ugly

Even very intelligent people fall for this line. Considering just how big Cultural Studies is in our universities, you might have thought that somebody would have learned its basic lesson: most so-called aesthetic judgements are nothing but class snobbery dressed up as ‘taste’. Nearly every single house in Britain is a box. Much-prized Georgian terraces are boxes. Anti-growth campaigners like to show slides of urban developments from the skies, to make us all look like ants – but who lives in the skies? When people say that new homes are ugly, what they mean, but cannot bring themselves to say, is that they think of the people in them as being ugly.

13) Ireland’s new homes are especially ugly

Ireland’s recent building boom is often cited as an example of what can go wrong. Those Irishmen’s homes are ugly, people say. What they mean is: ‘Wasn’t it cute when the Irish lived in little cottages with peat roofs, instead of those hateful McMansions?’ Why don’t they knock on a door and tell the person inside that his house is ugly, and see how they get on?

14) The CPRE campaigns to protect rural England

In a radio debate, Shaun Spiers of the CPRE challenged me. Surely, he asked, I would not want to see the New Forest developed? The New Forest was once thickly developed with Saxon homes, until William the Conqueror burnt them out, demanding the New Forest for his deer park. The wide-open spaces of the British countryside are the barren desert left after our forebears were ethnically cleansed from the land by the aristocracy. It is the aristocracy that still takes most of the seats on the CPRE council. The real purpose of the CPRE is to put limits on people’s aspirations, a function they see in the planning laws: a core function of the planning system is to serve the long-term public interest by preventing the fulfilment of our wants as individuals (8).

15) We need to look after the environment

Of course we do, but the CPRE and other green campaigners have forgotten who the environment is for. They look after empty spaces, beetles and rare birds, but treat people as cattle to be herded into overcrowded sheds. The British countryside is not under threat, but housebuilding is. The grotesque shortage of homes for people to live in shows what happens when you leave the greens in charge of just one area of policymaking. Imagine what would happen if they were allowed to have their way with energy, food, transport and medicine.

James Heartfield is director of audacity.org, the development think-tank, and author of Let’s Build! Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield rejected the government’s divisive housing policies. Josie Appleton explained why you can’t make heritage hip. Austin Williams warned that Tate Modern’s Global Cities exhibition shows that architects have lost their ‘utopian drive’. James Woudhuysen said Gordon Brown is building on Blair’s small-minded approach to housing. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and planning.

(1) Greens need to grasp the nettle: aren’t there just too many people?, Guardian, 10 September 2007

(2) Building a Crisis, House Builders Federation, p 4

(3) Developing a target range for the supply of new homes across England, National Housing Policy Advice Unit, October 2007, p.7

(4) Policy Based Evidence Making, CPRE, 2005, page 26, footnote 19

(5) We are not facing up to the real housing crisis, New Statesman, 28 June 2007

(6) One day all this will be multi-occupancy units, BBC News, 13 June 2007

(7) Policy Statement, August 2006

(8) Policy Based Evidence Making, CPRE, 2005, p. 20

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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