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Where is the debate we need on housing?

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I can't be the only person wincing at the facile journalism of the national newspapers and television's Panorama, or at the naivete of Lord Rogers in Parliament, which keeps polarising the great housing debate into 'green fields versus brown fields'. Lazy journalists in those media interchange the words 'green belt' and 'countryside', too, as if they were interchangeable labels for open land. Cynical politicians, with a policy horizon of about five minutes ahead, play the same campaign of disinformation. At its core is a simple chain of issues with complex implications for social, economic and environmental politics.

First, if we carry on with our current social ways, we shall need more homes (the forecast said 4.4 million 1991-2016, and with five years of actuality now passed it looks as though the figure ought to be 5.3 million or more). Issues: can we keep our children at home longer? Can we keep married and other couples together longer? Can we encourage people to die earlier? I happen to think government can't do much about these issues.

Second, do the resulting new households need a home each? Many singles share a house these days because they can't afford to live in their own home, but it seems they will move off alone as soon as they can afford it. Should this desire be prevented? My own feeling is that everyone has a right to a home of their own, and that is not a privilege that should be reserved for the rich. That happens to be government policy too.

Third, can the existing requirement for homes be met in cities and towns? The answer, of course, is that a great deal of it can, but the quantity varies from one part of the country to another. The Rowntree-financed inquiry carried out by the tcpa last year proved this simple point. It also depends where the work is (not inside urban areas very much, unfortunately) and where the households are actually arising (in the Middle England belt - shall we force them to move?).

Fourth, we need street-by-street appraisals of each urban area to establish its capacity for more homes. Thank you, Llewelyn Davies, for the report on this, though I think you have given insufficient weight to the need in urban areas for schools, playing fields, parks and allotments.

Fifth, in most regions there will be a need to take fresh land outside built-up areas. Locations in public transport corridors, on damaged land where possible, and on a scale that provides for all the necessities of life, are obviously the way forward. Sometimes the vast green belt is in the way. Hard cheese.

Last, how is all this to be paid for? Out of the land values created by urban development, of course! Whether through planning gain, or by a tax, is a point for political preference.

Television footage panning across Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to strains of Elgar are foolishly irrelevant. Councillors and planners who talk about 'the government's 4.4 million houses' do not fool us; they are our housing pressures. Romantic tosh from multi-millionaire architects and single-issue pressure groups about the delights of rediscovering living in cities does not move the debate forward. We all know the central bits of cities are great; the market for them is booming and we are all working on it. The breadth of the debate we need is far wider than that. 'More lofts' is not an adequate strategic planning policy.


Managing Director, David Lock Associates, Milton Keynes

(Chief Planning Adviser to the Department of the Environment, 1994-97)

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