A curse on all his houses

John Prescott's 'affordable housing' project should create decent homes where people want to live, rather than nasty soulless boxes that don’t disturb the weeds.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

It’s not often that the deputy prime minister says something you can understand – let alone agree with.

But when John Prescott told Radio Four that it would be ‘crazy’ to suggest that London’s housing crisis could be solved by transporting people up to the North of England to occupy the empty houses, I felt like giving him a round of applause (1). And when he released details of the first phase of the government’s house-building scheme, which will cause 120,000 new homes to be built in the South East, I really felt like cheering (2).

Whatever happened to all the miserablism about overpopulation of the south, the need to preserve the so-called Green Belt (aka fields around motorways around London), the need for people to ‘think local’ and stay put? Is the government finally prepared to get visionary, to embrace development and mobility, to put its people first and the NIMBY eco-worriers in their place?

Sadly, no. The government’s Sustainable Communities Plan might involve large amounts of money and considerable amounts of construction work, but the philosophy behind it is low-key and mean-spirited. Far from recognising a practical problem (not enough houses in areas where people want to live) and coming up with a practical solution (allowing the building of houses that people want to live in), the government has embarked upon yet another social engineering project, designed primarily to make people live in the way that it wants us to live.

Take Blunkett’s attack on the ‘crazy’ idea of moving people Up North. This is motivated, not by an appreciation of the benefits of mobility, but by a conservative fear of people being priced out of their home town. ‘Why shouldn’t daughters and sons, who have been brought up in their families in the South East, have a chance to be able to live with their families?’ he asked on the Today programme. ‘It’s called sustainable communities.’ (3)

Just as the government clearly believes that somebody born in Sheffield or Birmingham should stay put and enrich the North or Midlands with their social capital, so it believes that people born in Hackney or Slough should stay close to their roots. Or maybe it senses that the pull of Sheffield or Birmingham might not be enough to entice Londoners to move.

Or look at the ‘Green Belt’ issue. While environmental campaigners persist in their complaints that building more houses requires more land and therefore means stepping on Nature’s toes, one of the key principles of the Sustainable Communities Plan is that it will build on ‘brownfield’ sites – old warehouses, and such like.

In other words, locations known for their bleakness rather than their beauty, burying the bones of industrial society under what the Guardian’s architecture critic Jonathan Glancey has described as a government-approved ‘subtopia’, ‘a land where classless citizens are stakeholders in an accessible, 24-hour retail culture’, and ‘residents will stare across restless brown water to rows of identical brave new housing developments on the other side of the Thames’ (4).

For this Stalinist settlement scheme of the government’s is unlikely to be pretty, or lively, or even much of a community. The name popularly given to the scheme – the ‘affordable housing’ project – pretty much sums up its dreary quality. Divorced from architectural considerations, the planning methodology behind the scheme seems to have been nothing more sophisticated than splatting modern boxes on deserted clumps of land.

‘The dream of building new homes, new towns along the eastern banks of the Thames is an old, even honourable dream’, writes a wistful Jonathan Glancey. ‘Yet…what is being built here, for all the fine words spluttered in the name of Thames Gateway, is low-grade subtopian housing: isolated, boring, and a nesting ground for future disaffected teenagers.’ (5)

If the upshot of the affordable housing project is likely to be a suburban sprawl of soulless nastiness, why is Precott so excited about it? On one level, of course, it is a proactive response to a genuine problem. As the large industrial towns of provincial Britain have declined, people have flocked to the South East to find both the jobs and the sense of dynamism that London retains (by comparison, anyway).

The shortage of homes has put pressure on the housing market, sending prices sky-high and out of the range of people on low incomes. So the government should at least be congratulated on recognising this problem, and addressing it by building more properties.

But the narrow terms of the government’s solutions need questioning. What does ‘affordable housing’ mean anyway? Why focus on building homes that people can buy, rather than developing a bold vision of decent social housing that people rent? Why cover the banks of the Thames (and half of Kent) in poky two-storey boxes rather than building magnificent, spacious apartment blocks? Why not do something attractive with the Green Belt, rather than something rather ugly in town?

‘Affordable housing’ simply means what people are prepared to pay for the places in which they live. People in London – as in Paris, Manhattan and all the great cities of the world – pay a premium for living here because they want to live here. It is true that this penalises people on low incomes, and that nobody wants a city empty of, say, cleaners, dustbin-men, secretaries or nursery workers. But when it comes to affordability, these are not the people whom the government is worried about.

The ideal inhabitants of its Gateway boxes are, it seems, professionals – particularly teachers and nurses – whom it is attempting to bribe to stay in the city through such things as its convoluted ‘Starter Home Initiative’, where the government expects to ‘help up to 10,000 key workers, particularly health workers, teachers and the police to buy homes in urban and rural areas where high prices would otherwise prevent them from living in or near to the communities they serve’ (6).

Clearly, its concern about these people is not their absolute level of wages – teachers get paid more than cleaners, even if they complain more; and as the government makes clear, certain kinds of teachers, such as those in further education, are not eligible for this scheme. Its concern is that people in the ‘key’ professions – which are suffering major recruitment crises – do not want to live in London, and are therefore unwilling to pay a premium to do so. Building and bribing seems like a rather drastic solution; and one can only speculate as to whether a helping hand on the mortgage of a box on the Thames will entice anybody to teach in an inner-city school.

What about renting? In a civilised society, of course people should expect a decent place to live. But there is no iron law (although there may be British common law) to say that rented property has to be a squalid rip-off. On this, however, the government is very clear.

‘Our aim is to give everyone the opportunity of a decent home, and so promote social cohesion, wellbeing and self-dependence’, states the website of John Prescott’s department, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (7). Or in plain English: make them buy their property, so they will live like a middle-class community and not leech off the state. This is the Thatcherite dream of property and responsibility, recycled in New Labour language of humanitarianism: and it is no less conservative than ever it was.

Why not build upwards? God only knows. It is perfectly possible to build stunning, spacious apartments in tower-blocks: look at Manhattan. Even taking into account the lack of creativity and bold vision in the UK today compared with the original building of New York City, it would not be hard to purpose-build flats that might be more pleasant dwellings than the squeezed-together semis with integral garage and exposed gardens that now pass for luxury housing. I can only assume that the government is haunted by the memory of the grim social-housing tower-blocks of the twentieth century, and is unwilling to put its project on the skyline in this way. Low-level sprawl, however unpleasant, can at least be hidden from view.

And why not build on the Green Belt? As the writer James Heartfield has pointed out, the notion that we are at risk of concreting over the countryside is bizarre once you look at the statistics. ‘Four-fifths of all Britons live in towns and cities of over 10,000 people, and these cover a tiny seven percent of the nation’s landmass’, he wrote in In the sticks magazine. ‘Fully three-quarters of Britain is dedicated to agriculture, of which about a third is not needed. There is no natural shortage of land to build on, only an absence of will to make it happen.’ (8) Indeed.

The government has allowed itself to be spooked by the green movement into abandoning all this abundant countryside in favour of squeezing sad little properties on to sorry little brownfield estates. Why? Because giving people somewhere decent to live comes second to the fate of the creatures inhabiting the nature reserves and the weeds that dwell on deserted farms. Oh, and you might have to sort the trains out too.

(1) Controversial homes project unveiled, BBC News, 30 July 2003

(2) Making it happen – delivering sustainable communities in the growth areas, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, 30 July 2003

(3) Controversial homes project unveiled, BBC News, 30 July 2003

(4) Taking the yellow-brick road to subtopia, Jonathan Glancey, Guardian, 30 July 2003

(5) Taking the yellow-brick road to subtopia, Jonathan Glancey, Guardian, 30 July 2003

(6) Introduction, The Starter Home Initiative, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

(7) Housing, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

(8) ‘Let’s build!’, In the sticks, January 2003

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Topics Politics


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