Speaking earlier this month Yvette Cooper, the new housing and planning minister, added a new dimension to how the government sees the concept of sustainability. On a platform shared with Liz Peace, director of the British Property Federation, she said: 'I think we have to be clear that the most unsustainable thing of all would be to fail to build the homes that the next generation need.' Cooper said that to achieve sustainable communities we need:
housing which meets demand;
a strong and expanding economic base;
a transport and physical infrastructure which supports economic development;
good public services;
proper community facilities;
good community safety; and - good quality design.
And she added: 'We need strong civic and community leadership to carry it through.' Cooper sees these principles as being central to the government's approach to the development of areas such as the Thames Gateway and that, above all, sustainable communities need economic strategies as well as housing development.
They 'need to be truly mixed communities', she said, 'and this is why? in the gateway we expect affordable housing to be around 35 per cent of the new development, rather than the higher London target of 50 per cent.' The importance of good design and the involvement of CABE got a mention but the essential theme was the need for more houses to meet the varying local demand. 'In normal competitive markets, if demand and prices rise, supply increases. But in the housing market over the past 30 years demand has increased due to demographic changes and rising incomes. Average house prices have increased? yet new housing supply has dropped by 30 per cent.
'Our own analysis of affordability for 30-year-old couples shows that at the peak of the last housing cycle (in the late 1980s), 57 per cent could afford their own home. Last year, that figure was just 50 per cent. If we continue to build at the rates we have seen in recent years, we will be denying the next generation the opportunities we have taken for granted. Just as aspirations are rising, opportunities will fall.' Oddly the minister attributes the problem of affordability to 'market failure'. 'Just as aspirations for home ownership are rising, the housing market is failing to respond, ' she concludes.
If ever there was a market working as predicted, surely it is the housing market. Planning, as I have said before, is a rationing system - it 'rationalises' the rights over the use and development of land.
If you impose an ever slower and more regulated rationing regime on a free market, you get high prices and shortages.
Calls for more homes, better design and higher densities should all be good for the market in architects, but it must be extremely tough being minister jointly of housing and planning.
Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership