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Impoverished policies don’t make great cities

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The house building situation is not happy, but it exists in a more positive context - the growth of cities and the benefits they bring, writes Paul Finch

At time of writing, the full details had yet to emerge, but it sounds as though Building Regulations are being blamed for the housing shortage. If only those pesky rules or guidance about window and room sizes could be eliminated, the world would be safer for all our people.

It is hard to believe that the prime minister believes in this sort of nonsense. Perhaps it is a reaction to the minimum sizes introduced by Boris Johnson, the only politician for many decades to tell the truth about the ‘hutches’ (to use his word) that the house building sector is turning out in insufficient quantities. The Home Builders Federation must be laughing all the way to the land bank as their long-term propaganda exercise to remove all vestiges of quality control looks increasingly successful (except in St Boris’ London).

If planning and building regulations make life so difficult, how do the best housebuilders manage to build anything - Barratt Homes, Crest Nicholson, Berkeley et al? The fact that they do provides positive proof that the lowest common denominator brigade (they know who they are) have zero credibility when it comes to policy.

That wise, political bird Nick Raynsford reminded me recently of the last year that the UK produced sufficient homes to meet predicted demand. It was 1978. At that time, there were four serious providers: private housebuilders, who produce between 130,000 and 160,000 homes a year except when there is a mortgage famine; councils; housing associations; and new towns.

These days, councils aren’t generally building at all, and new towns don’t exist - and aren’t likely to, despite the hype about garden cities being bandied about by Eric Pickles. The private sector is responding to mortgage conditions, helped along by George Osborne’s underwriting guarantee to the well-off. Housing associations are a mixed picture, but too many are struggling with debt to perform as they might.

This is not a happy picture, but it exists in a far more positive context - that is to say the growth of cities and the benefits that they can bring. A useful corrective to the gloomy-tunes view of the world came last week from Harvard University economics professor Ed Glaeser, who lectured to a packed hall at the LSE on his favourite topic: why cities are good for you.

Glaeser brought the house down, not least because of his preparedness to take on gurus like Ghandi and Jane Jacobs, and spell out where they were mistaken. Shafts of perception illuminated an already dazzling series of statistics and chronologies: in 1960 no poor countries were urban, whereas a problem today is the urbanisation of precisely those countries. Every large city before the 20th century was a focus for empire; the implications of trade account for the fact that in the 19th century, the 20 biggest American cities were all water-based.

His account of what happened to Detroit was fascinating; the Silicon Valley of the 1890s, it suffered from having manufacturing plants physically separate from the city itself. As an aside, Glaeser noted that highway building finally made industrial production irrelevant to the life of cities post-Second World War.

Without claiming a magic formula for urban success, he had some sound advice: focus on people not place-based thinking; don’t think that freezing housing densities solves anything; ensure clean water (he reminded us that Manhattan Bank’s origins were the Manhattan Water Company); and ensure decent housing choice for middle-class families.

The challenge for London? Create more housing without destroying the city fabric. He might have added that we need big thinkers, not the pygmies who imagine that destroying standards is any sort of answer.

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