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We should address our housing problem by building, not punishing

What is required is an inclusive attitude to the many shades and drivers of architecture, writes Paul Finch

Strolling down the Croisette in Cannes is a sure way to imagine that all is well with the world; that development, finance, governance and life are all in some sort of balance; and that the only barrier between achieving the buildings and environments celebrated in the MIPIM/AR Future Project Awards is our own imagination.

Yet the weekend before the great property-fest, a debate took place on Any Questions, in which matters of social equity, construction policy, government finance and family life aroused great passions. The debate concerned what has been described, erroneously, as a ‘bedroom tax’. It is far worse than that.

Desperate to do something about the parlous state of the housing market, the coalition government is putting the squeeze on poor families in council accommodation and/or in receipt of housing benefit. The intention is to force them to downsize to the minimum number of bedrooms thus releasing accommodation for those on a waiting list for larger properties because of family size. Newcomers with big families go to the top of the queue.

So far, understandable. However, the consequences of the proposal scarcely seem to have been thought through by the Cabinet plutocracy. Unsurprisingly the Labour Party, plus those LibDems who retain their principles, are giving the Eton brigade a hard time. What about the disabled? What about visiting non-resident parents? What about families where boy and girl will shortly reach an age where they must by law have separate rooms? What about people who have made their home and (sometimes) garden who are being ethnically cleansed from one place and moved miles away from friends, family and community? What about giving people storage space? Somewhere for a friend to stay?

Have any of these public school tribunes, with their mansions, second homes and foreign hideaways spent time in, say, the third bedroom of a council flat, even one built to Parker Morris standards (before Michael Heseltine ripped them up, ensuring the poor would never swing the family cat in a third bedroom again)?

The truth is, and I say this as someone who supports much of what the government has done about planning and design, that the proposed policy is disgusting and should immediately be abandoned, or at least modified to the point where it might as well be abandoned. The reason for the housing shortage, particularly in London, is our failure to build in sufficient quantities, especially given the unparalleled and uncontrolled mass immigration which took place under ‘New’ Labour, and about which Ed Miliband is now wringing his hands. Blair and Brown have much to answer for.

As has been argued in this column previously, an emergency requires emergency measures, but should not wreck the lives of ordinary citizens who have done nothing to deserve the punishment now being meted out to them. Instead, we should have an instant introduction of as-of-right conversions from office to residential, we should begin a crash programme of building houses and apartments on land owned by public bodies and we should appoint someone to oversee the programme with political and budgetary authority, as we saw at the Olympics. Someone like David Higgins.

The fact is that anyone building housing in London gets hit by special taxes and levies left, right and centre. These need to be abolished until we get back into housing balance, however long it takes. Amazingly, the political classes still see housing as a milk-cow instead of social infrastructure for all. Creating new infrastructure, which becomes a long-term investment, would of course help to build our way out of recession.

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