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Predict and provide - an attitude that needs to be resurrected

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Instead of predicting and providing, political parties are rationing the supply of housing, schools and hospitals, writes Paul Finch

One of the sillier anti-car brigade mantras is the pointlessness of building roads or bridges, because when completed they ‘just fill up with traffic’. This is mind-numbing stuff, since the only new road or bridge which is truly pointless is one that is empty, suggesting it was unnecessary.

The old civil service attitude that government should predict and provide fell out of favour for reasons we will have to rely on historians to analyse. It seems to have taken place some time in the 1980s, certainly in relation to housing, and has had disastrous results.

This is by no means a party-political matter, since both main parties have happily played along with it. So we now find shortages of schools, shortages of housing where it is needed, and hospital provision out of sync with changing demographic trends. Where are the hospices? Whatever happened to district nurses?

Instead of predict and provide, we now have all the parties lining up to support various versions of rationing, always a sign that politicians are erasing the history that brought us to our present condition.

Thus the ludicrous suggestions that homes being built in London should be restricted to Brits, or first-time buyers, or anyone who hasn’t got enough money to be able to actually afford them. A good question for the blow-hards who come up with this stuff is how they think the 600,000 French citizens in London have managed to house themselves over the past 10 years.

The answer is that they have bought, or rented, existing homes. They are EU people and there is nothing we could have done to stop this happening, even if we had wanted to. I am very happy that lots of French people live in London, but I am very unhappy at the utter disregard paid by our homegrown politicos to its implications for the housing market.

Chinese and Malaysian investors are now buying in quantity, setting off another bout of chauvinism among certain policymakers, who are engaged in a fruitless attempt to dream up tax sticks and conformity rules which are a throwback to the days of butter coupons and meat rations.

When international capital descends on a country or a city, it is akin to a force of nature. In understanding why it has happened, in London’s case, one would have to draw attention to the magnificent capital gains shown by a housing market where supply has been so disconnected to demand. Buying a house here looks like money for old rope - and all because politicians would not take the necessary decisions to ensure supply.

It is no use blaming the planning system when the system is politically led, though of course planners are getting it in the neck from the very politicians who avoid looking in the mirror too often. As has been argued in this column before, it is not a question of land shortage either. There is lots of land in London and the South East. It just needs activating.

So far, architects have avoided the blame for our housing condition, but the siren political cry for more supply - and never mind the quality - is already starting to be heard. It should be resisted, but in a positive way: you can have system-building that is well designed (cf Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners in Newham). You can have excellent eco-homes that are more or less assembled by a kit of parts (Bill Dunster). You can have ‘normal’ homes that have been built in a streamlined and standardised, but variable way (Rational House).

If the politicians take a lead, architects have the capacity to push house building to new and better standards. Predict and provide.

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