Come, friendly bombs, fall on Brown’s eco-towns

With his plans to erect zero-carbon homes in zero-car suburbs, Gordon Brown builds on the Blairites’ small-minded approach to housing.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

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Britain’s prime-minister-in-waiting, Gordon Brown, has announced that one of his first big initiatives will be to build ‘eco-towns’ – that is, areas with new houses that emit little or no carbon, where there is little need for people to drive cars, and where the most a home-owner aspires to is to watch his electricity meter to ensure he isn’t using up too much of the nation’s energy. For all his claims to be bringing something ‘new’ to Britain, Brown’s small-scale and small-minded attitude to housing seems entirely in keeping with his predecessor’s.

In the closing months of the Blair decade, Haringey Council in north London pushed through a remarkable innovation in housing policy. It wanted to check which residents were failing to claim grants to buy fuel. It also wanted to check which homes in Haringey lie empty. First and foremost, however, it wanted to indict all the local homes it deemed wasteful of energy. So the Council hired a plane, equipped it with a thermal imaging camera, and posted colour-coded street maps of the offending energy wasters on the web (1).

In terms of the direct intrusion of the government on the British house, the Blair decade has been remarkable. A recent pamphlet by the Centre for Policy Studies, a Thatcherite think-tank, could point to no fewer than 266 ways in which the state is able to enter people’s homes (2). Indeed, Labour government minister Ruth Kelly’s Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG), successor to John Prescott’s Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (1997-2006), plans further controls. If parliament agrees, all houses in England and Wales will only ever get sold once the state rates them for their carbon emissions – from a disgusting ‘not environmentally friendly’, rating 1 to 20, to a mystical ‘very environmentally friendly’, rating 82 to 100 (3).

Just what physical units these ratings consist of, the new Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) do not say. At the end of the Blair years, the CLG invokes the 2006 Stern report on climate change, which was commissioned by Gordon Brown, whenever it can; yet when some more basic science is required, Ruth Kelly’s empire is silent.

Still, in a striking, therapeutic reversal of the Roman, adult commandment caveat emptor, Blair’s infantilising doctrine of consumer protection has come to housing. Anyone out to sell a house in England and Wales will have to pay the state upwards of £600, just so buyers can receive mandatory Home Information Packs (HIPs), each containing an EPC, the title deeds and details of local searches.

In an Orwellian 2007, the government wants at least 7,500 Home Inspectors to knock on millions of British doors. The country now needs to build no fewer than five million new homes in the next decade (4). Instead, Haringey’s spy-in-the-sky and the CLG’s HIP approaches to housing confirm that displacement activities have triumphed in the Blair years.

There is still little serious discussion of the need to reform the planning of the land and the technologies of building. There is no national debate about how, for all age groups, we need to build enough homes and infrastructure so that people can live where they want to, travel there, and have a decent amount of space indoors and out. Instead, New Labour rhetoric, and a burgeoning amount of regulation, surround the debate on housing. The government seems only to be interested in the following:

  1. zero carbon homes that rely on decentralised energy sources, and so save the planet;
  2. the manicured design of homes;
  3. mixed-tenure housing, in compact, walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods, which will become the the mainstay of urban regeneration and social cohesion (5);
  4. ‘flexible tenure’, shared ownership, shared equity, key worker housing and other exotic financial arrangements – arrangements that are often ‘intermediate’ between renting and full ownership.

Before looking at these four diversions from the actual act of housebuilding, let’s first look at the volumes of the houses erected in the Blair years – volumes both in numerical and in spatial terms.

New Labour puts houses out of reach, but in your face

As Brown was forced to concede in statements over the weekend, Blair has left Britain with a crisis not just of housing supply, but also of affordability. The price of an average house in the UK has risen from £77,531 in 1997 to a likely £200,000 in 2008 (6). According to the Halifax, residential property is too expensive for people to buy in 70 per cent of British towns.

Along with first-time buyers, public sector workers – above all, nurses and firefighters – face the greatest difficulties in affording a home. Yet it is on public sector workers that much of the British economy, especially in the north of England and the devolved regions, now depends. As for those public sector workers who are searching the south of England, in vain, for property cheap enough to suit their pockets, things are now so bad that the conservative Financial Times recently came out in favour of paying such ill-starred individuals higher wages. The FT ridiculed Blair’s schemes of houses built for ‘key workers’, noting:

‘Those who are not eligible – young or low-paid workers in the private sector, academics, or the many key workers who cannot get into one of the subsidised schemes – are left with fewer, more expensive properties to buy, while existing homeowners prosper as the subsidies drive up prices.’ (7)

Existing homeowners – the middle classes – have indeed prospered from Blair’s divisive housing policies; indeed that was always a deliberate strategy on his part. Similarly, there have been only incremental annual increases in the building of new dwellings. In 1997/8, just 180,566 new homes were built in Great Britain, only for the total to go almost straight down until 2001/2. By 2005/6, the pick-up was to just 196,307. That amounted to a rise in housing output of less than nine per cent over eight years (8).

On Blair’s watch, 1.6million new homes were built in Britain (9). Yet the country added more than 1.9million new households (10). Homelessness also worsened: in England, households in temporary accommodation nearly doubled, from 47,520 in early 1998 to nearly 90,000 at the end of 2006 (11). Everywhere, people have to join longer queues for local authority housing and homes owned by Registered Social Landlords. More and more, these kinds of homes are allocated only to those held to be in dire need. Thus, class differences and the number of ‘sink’ estates have both been reinforced in the Blair years – not by poor architecture, but by Whitehall policies.

The facts are stark enough. The complacency and drift around housing under Blair are just as egregious as his failures in health and education. Of course, there are plenty of ‘eye-catching initiatives’ in housing: each week, Ruth Kelly launches even more than Prescott did. The real problems lie elsewhere.

New Labour and the propertied classes conspire with rural romantics, environmentalist reaction, narcissistic architects and authoritarian planners to make new homes harder and harder to build. Despite the standardised houses made by Georgians, Victorians and inter-war builders of semi-detached suburban properties, there are no plans to emulate the Toyota Motor Company and manufacture light, airy, personalised, £100,000 homes that are ready to receive roofs in the space of six hours (12). Instead, a homeopathic approach dominates: the more house numbers are diluted within a solution of sustainable communities and ‘place making’, the more effective housing policy is deemed to be (13).

All respectable opinion in housing now sagely agrees that the field has gone ‘way beyond’ simply building houses. An immediate consequence of this ephemeral, New Age posture is that little attention is paid to the physical volumes actually occupied by homes.

England and Wales and, to a slightly lesser extent, Scotland, stand apart from countries such as Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland in lacking one of the very few pieces of housing regulation that would make sense – minimum space standards (14). In floor space and room size, both the existing UK stock and new-build are the lowest in Europe (15). Last year, spiked exposed the outrageous increases in housing density rammed through in the Blair years (16). This year comes news that, since the mid-1990s, nearly three-quarters of all complaints about noise received by environmental health officers (EHOs) in England and Wales identified a nearby home as the source of annoyance (17).

Of course, a climate of urban anomie and a culture of complaint about one’s neighbours have long been the sad but inescapable consequences of Blairite housing policies. Nevertheless, when the state now comes along to cram new houses right up against old ones, pushing them into your face, people can – ironically – be forgiven for saying ‘not in my backyard, Ruth Kelly!’.

It was the architect Richard Rogers who, made official adviser to John Prescott early on in Blair’s premiership, first suggested that nearness makes for neighbourliness (18). Nine years after Prescott put Rogers in charge of the Urban Task Force, this inane idea continues to dominate the New Labour imagination. The urge to make housing and cities ‘compact’ has become so deep-seated that housing minister Yvette Cooper has been forced to blame local authorities for exceeding central government’s already excessive targets for the percentage of houses built on brownfield sites (19).

Zero carbon, maximum regulation

In the old days, the Prescott doctrine of ‘sustainable communities’ was mainly a pretentious protest against sprawl, the suburbs, the working class and all that. Yet as environmentalist opinion has grown more strident, so the nuances of housing sustainababble have changed. Government continues to plead for place-making and better home design; but the dogma that British homes must save the planet trumps everything.

Over his final winter, Blair saw the CLG embark on a series of ‘consultations’ with interested parties. By March 2007, one of the weirdest of such exercises had closed, marked by the publication, over 90 pages, of Planning Policy Statement: Planning and Climate Change – Supplement to Planning Policy Statement 1 (20). It is worth getting a flavour of the CLG’s housing Newspeak at the end of a decade of Blairite managerialism. In paragraph 1.14 of the consultation document, under the heading ‘Transitional Arrangements’, we read the following:

‘The need to take steps to mitigate and adapt to climate change is not a new requirement. RPBs and LPAs should already be taking steps to ensure that development plans contribute to global sustainability by addressing the causes and potential impacts of climate change. RPBs and LPAs may, however, come under pressure or themselves consider it necessary to halt plan-making so as to allow time to absorb the full implications of the policies in Planning and Climate Change, in its draft form as well as when finalised. The Department considers that such pressure should normally be resisted, but anticipates that RPBs will consider whether the content of emerging revisions of RSS, and LPAs similarly for DPDs, is consistent with the Key Planning Objectives set out in Planning and Climate Change.’

RPBs, anyone? They are regional planning bodies, and work with unelected regional development agencies (RDAs). LPAs? Local planning authorities, offshoots of local authorities. RSS? Regional spatial strategies in England, prepared by regional assemblies, which are only indirectly elected. DPDs? Development plan documents, prepared by LPAs.

This kind of planning gobbledegook, and the unelected appointees that go with it, is not an accident. Under Blair, the purpose of planning has become to stop new houses being built. For proof, look no further than paragraph 6 of the consultation document – that on Key Planning Objectives. All planning authorities, the CLG suggests, should prepare and deliver spatial strategies that, to quote directly:

1) make a full contribution to delivering the government’s Climate Change Programme and energy policies, and in doing so contribute to global sustainability;
2) in enabling the provision of new homes, jobs, services and infrastructure and shaping the places where people live and work, secure the highest viable standards of resource and energy efficiency and reduction in carbon emissions;
3) deliver patterns of urban growth that help secure the fullest possible use of sustainable transport for moving freight, public transport, cycling and walking; and, overall, reduce the need to travel, especially by car;
4) secure new development and shape places resilient to the effects of climate change in ways consistent with social cohesion and inclusion;
5) sustain biodiversity, and in doing so recognise that the distribution of habitats and species will be affected by climate change;
6) reflect the development needs and interests of communities and enable them to contribute effectively to tackling climate change;
7) respond to the concerns of business and encourage competitiveness and technological innovation.

In the Blair terminus, fighting climate change comes before ‘enabling the provision’ of new homes. Reducing the need to travel and especially to drive, and sustaining biodiversity, comes before technological innovation. Indeed, regional planning bodies will have to produce ‘regional trajectories’ for the future carbon performance of new residential and commercial development (paragraph 1.7).

Regional variations in zero-carbon fanaticism lead to national confusion: this is Blair’s legacy in planning. Areas of land that don’t quite fit the seven-point straitjacket laid out above ‘should not normally be considered for allocation for new development’ in terms of housing (paragraph 20). Moreover, with each new housing development, planners must ‘take a precautionary approach’ to the sea-level rises, flood risks and instabilities that the development is likely to experience over its expected lifetime (paragraphs 19, 35).

So the state will make sure that there is even less space available for housing, because much of the land will be written off as unsafe – if not now, then perhaps 100 years after Blair quits office!

Wherever, immediately after Blair, a major housing scheme is planned, at least 10 per cent of its energy supply will have to be ‘gained onsite and renewably and/or from a decentralised, renewable or low-carbon, energy supply’ (paragraph 22). But now, since his weekend pronouncement, PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown has shown once again that a parsimonious, small-is-beautiful approach to society’s burgeoning energy needs will always take precedence over large numbers of spacious homes that people can buy and own in full.

Brown’s March 2007 Budget relieved the zero-carbon homes of the future from Stamp Duty (21). Now, in one of the first statements of his campaign to become Labour leader and thus the next prime minister, he has promised five ‘eco-towns’, with perhaps a total of 100,000 homes, to be built – of course – on old industrial sites.

We shall see how many new homes are actually built, and whether they are genuine additions to previous plans or simply represent Brown’s usual sleight-of-hand trick of re-announcing old numbers. We shall see if the energy supplied by localised facilities to the new eco-towns is efficiently and reliably produced, so that it is cheap and maintenance-free for householders, and demands no reduction in living standards. And we shall see if anyone can easily and cheaply get transport in and out of these developments.

Whatever the outcome, however, we can be certain that there will be more:

· official insistence that all new housing developments ‘microgenerate’ enough electricity for them to be deemed zero carbon;
· official insistence that the occupants of such developments install meters that can track the few measly kilowatts they manage to generate;
· attempts to get householders to try to sell the energy they inefficiently produce at home back to specialist energy giants, such as Powergen and Centrica.

In the zero carbon cause, Brown will push through the maximum regulation of householder ‘behaviours’ he can get away with. Indeed, on top of energy performance certificates for homes that are put on the market in England and Wales, the Building Research Establishment in Watford, England, is on hand to make a separate judgment on the energy performance of each individual new home that is likely to be built.

In this way, the CLG’s December 2006 Code for Sustainable Homes will, post-Blair, bring more snarl-ups (22). Up to, but not including, its Level 6 requirement for microgeneration to support zero-carbon status, the Code represents a fairly rational path to higher energy efficiency in new homes. But instead of moving at once to incorporate Levels 1-5 into the mandatory Building Regulations, which would be a second rare instance of regulation actually making sense, the Code will allow the environmental merits and demerits of each new home to be the subject of dispute for years to come. A great way to solve Britain’s housing crisis….

The fad for design – and its green limits

One of the cultural hallmarks of the Blair years, closely attending the rise in house prices, has been the obsession about the design and upkeep of homes. TV programmes such as How Green is Your House?, How Clean is Your House?, It’s Not Easy Being Green and Grand Designs show there is a new genre out there – ‘property porn’ (23).

At one level, there is something to celebrate here. Just as there’s nothing wrong with consumption, there’s nothing wrong with energy-efficient houses or – inside certain limits – with domestic cleanliness. Mass knowledge and interest in home design, pioneered in the Thatcher years of council house sales, has deepened in the Blair years of housebuilding torpor. Although minimalist aesthetics, minimum carbon footprints and the metaphors of biology still outweigh more useful design improvements, tastes have improved. There are also the first beginnings of a discussion on acoustics; though a second, still current ‘consultation’ paper suggests that the CLG is more concerned about a few noisy windmills tomorrow than it is about millions of paper-thin walls today (24).

At another level, however, the new mass religion of housing design shows how successfully Blair and his cultural hangers-on have depoliticised Britain. One could see the trend before New Labour took office, not least in consumer electronics, a field now closely related to housing. Even before the sleek Apple iPod transfixed a generation, I attacked ‘the illusion of consumer sovereignty’ in IT as ‘intellectual enslavement’, noting:

‘Above all, consumers can come to accept that mastering the everyday minutiae of digital life in the home is what freedom is all about. [But] in fact the human subject cannot, and should not be reduced to someone, or even a community of individuals, for whom freedom is another lengthy search or chat on the Net. This is to diminish the nature of freedom and to substitute immediate considerations of lifestyle, or of culture, for wider social goals.’ (25)

What should have been obvious about manias for design of IT gadgets in 1996 has applied just as well to manias about the design of homes from 1997 to 2007. Under Blair, tens of millions of Brits came to polish and perform DIY on the country’s massive stock of housing antiques, and came to believe in their ‘consumer sovereignty’ as a result. Yet home design and the play of architectural details no more constitute freedom than do home repossessions (still modest compared to the levels achieved by Thatcher and Major, but on the up in 2007 nevertheless).

The Blair-Brown consensus in housing is anyway not about freedom, but about casting homes as ‘responsible’ for deadly CO2. The whole concept of the ecological ‘footprint’ directly stigmatises housing, and especially new or decently sized homes. At the same time, behaviour with appliances in the home is stigmatised. Blair has achieved one thing: you can now buy meters to watch the infinitesimal amounts of UK energy you use to boil a kettle.

For all the love of domesticity that Blair has encouraged, Brits feel uncomfortable about their homes. It’s not hard to see why. Under a finger-wagging web entry titled ‘Your impact on climate change’, the avowedly impartial but government-funded Energy Saving Trust (EST) – a Blair inheritance from John Major – encourages a national mood of residential shame. It proclaims: ‘Each household in the UK creates around six tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.’ (26)

Yet this statistic is pure Blairite spin. A large and fast-growing proportion of energy use in the home surrounds electrical equipment. In the final 12 months of the Blair decade:

· the EST itself fretted about what it called ‘The rise of the machines’ – set-top boxes and other energy-using products in the home (27);
· Gordon Brown made a special speech to the UN about home devices left on standby (28)’
· David Miliband waxed lyrical about low-energy light bulbs (29).

Now gas-fired central heating, the most common sort in Britain, directly produces carbon in the home – but it is growing more carbon-efficient with the spread of condensing boilers. By contrast, electrical appliances in homes do not ‘create’ CO2. It is conventional electricity power stations that do this, not people using their homes to do perfectly human things like making a cup of tea.

Nevertheless, an enduring TV image of the Blair years is of balloons of dirt ascending from every house. This is how much moralism, and a snobbish preference for eco-design over scientific fact, have combined to deceive and manipulate the public. Today’s zero-carbon mentality will always limit the extent to which the masses can find solace, as New Labour would like, in the interior and exterior design of homes.

There is one other aspect of the fad for home design that has emerged from the Blair decade. Like the professional rants about ‘place-making’, the media celebration of the home as a beautifully restored hand-made product tends to divert the public gaze from the improvements that are desperately needed in the whole technological process of building new homes. When, in 2005, John Prescott asked the regeneration agency English Partnerships to organise a contest to build demonstration two-bedroom houses for just £60,000 each, it was a step forward. But since that time the processes of British housebuilding have come under the microscope not for their backwardness, but rather for…the way in which they create carbon.

Already the CLG has hinted that it may want to provide some way of accounting not just for energy in use around the home, but for the energy embodied in constructing the home. ‘A probable future development’ regarding the environmental impact of materials used to build homes, it says, ‘is to reward resource efficiency, as well as the use of resources that are more sustainable, by developing “Ecopoints per m2” as a measure for this item.’ (30)

After ‘food miles’, can ‘construction miles’ be far behind? Once Blair is gone, planners out to dictate that homes be ‘in character’ with their surroundings will conspire with freight-hating greens to ensure that homes are only built from local materials, transported only modest distances. Once more, hysteria about climate change will curb the desire for ambitious experiments home design.

Housing as the Third Way on the ground

In April 2009, English Partnerships, the £0.8billion body charged with regenerating England’s cities, and the £1.7billion Housing Corporation, which funds new affordable housing and regulates housing associations in England, will cease their existence. A single, £4.6billion body called Communities England will take their place. Meanwhile, ever since its formation on 5 May 2006, Ruth Kelly’s CLG has taken responsibility not just for housing, but also for community relations, especially between religious groups.

Blair has given housing a distinctive role. It has emerged as the favoured force for laying down, in the fabric and the conduct of our cities, the iffy combination of economic efficiency (‘regeneration’) and social justice (‘communities’) that Blair always defined as the Third Way.

With the collapse of local government and local democracy over the Blair years, housing is one of the areas where Whitehall centralisers have most encouraged ‘a kind of devolution’ (31). Just as Brown outsourced decisions on interest rates to a Monetary Policy Committee, so New Labour looks to local housing professionals to turn cities round – especially in the north of England. Similarly, the Home Office wants housing associations, Registered Social Landlords, Arms-Length Management Organisations, Large-Scale Voluntary Trusts, along with all the other initials common to the social housing sector, to issue ASBOs, partner with the police, and look after old people, people’s ‘life chances’, sport, diet and all the rest of it.

Few government ministers make speeches about exports, imports, foreign direct investment (FDI) or the export of British capital abroad. Fewer still make speeches about Britain’s need for much more R&D, or for better transport. But not a week passes without ministers speaking out in favour of cities as the chief dynamo of regional economic development, and in favour of housing as the mainstay of urban regeneration and social cohesion. Despite the fact that Britain is building very few new houses, the vacuous politics of Blairism means that housing is now asked to revitalise ‘city-regions’. Worse still, in the management of neighbourhoods on the ground, housing is also asked to take responsibility for implementing Blair’s Third Way – in all its therapeutic and authoritarian hideousness.

In the quango quagmire of housing bodies in London, nobody quite knows what Communities England will wind up doing. It will probably be a more-or-less one-stop shop for urban regeneration, housebuilding and regulation. There is talk of forming, in a residential parallel to Ofcom in communications, Ofhouse – inevitably, to spread the grip of regulation to private landlords.

There was a time when urban strategy was thought to have something to do with attracting inward investment and FDI, spreading jobs in R&D, and building advanced transport and IT. Now it is about mixing in a few jolly homes for ‘excluded’ or ‘key worker’ families, rather than allowing a monoculture of buy-to-let projects aimed at single-person households, that is held to be key to urban progress. It is the same story in welfare and Home Office services. Housing already rivals education and health in its centrality to overall social control (better known as social policy). In a third ‘consultation’, which has been specially extended into this month, the CLG’s Commission on Integration and Cohesion asks national bodies:

‘What role in contributing to community cohesion and integration do you see for organisations and institutions such as: local authorities, the police, the health service, schools, youth organisations, faith groups, inter-faith and race equality bodies, housing associations, private sector bodies, voluntary organisations, theatres, art centres, sports associations, and the media? (Please comment on as few or many as you wish).’ (32)

It sounds pick-‘n’-mix – but in reality New Labour had already made its mind up about housing before even embarking on this consultation. Housing associations are not just one of the institutions asked to assure some kind of cohesion and integration in the future; they, and all other bodies like them in the social housing sector, already play a leading role in this exercise in real, living localities. Local councillors, like police chiefs, come and go. But housing professionals, like Britain’s housing crisis, are always with us. It is upon them that Blair’s successor will rely when his housing policies lead to social turbulence.

For their part housing professionals, both in the social sector or among private housebuilders, don’t know whether to laugh or cry. They are flattered to be asked to do everything. But in 2007 New Labour wants some houses built or rebuilt, cohesion everywhere assured and the environment fixed…for £22billion of public expenditure (33).

That’s a fair amount of money, even if, like transport spending, that on housing and the environment is much less than expenditure on public order or defence (more than £30billion each), or on education, health or social protection (£77billion, £104billion and £161billion respectively). But exactly where do state funds for housing wind up? Just to get some homes built stretches most housing professionals; yet now they are charged with bringing about urban and regional economic revival, plus a crime-free, touchy-feely social atmosphere into the bargain as well.

In practice state moneys will be frittered away, in housing as elsewhere, on well-meaning, soft-centre jobs for the middle classes. Right now, for instance, there is a flurry of interest in the social housing sector (34). In this atmosphere, it seems certain that most of the same thousands of housing professionals who hated Blair for his war in Iraq will easily be won round to do his successor’s bidding in local neighbourhoods. They will be a loyal aristocracy around the nation’s principal asset: housing.

The financialisation of housing

The fourth and final aspect of Blair’s legacy in housing is very consonant with the boom in the City of London, and the broad decline of science, technology and innovation that have accompanied the Blair years. In place of the construction of millions of new homes, which would be the proper answer to the affordability crisis, New Labour prefers to get people to reach for affordability through the pursuit of creative accounting in housing finance. Just as some lenders offer house buyers mortgages worth five times their salary, or more, so the government lauds exotic financial arrangements intermediate between renting and outright ownership. In particular, the CLG’s HomeBuy scheme ‘enables social tenants, key workers and other first-time buyers to buy a share of a home and get a first step on the ladder’ (35).

In Blair’s Britain, 77,000 householders, including 25,000 ‘key workers’, have already bought not a home, but a share of a home; at the same time the extent of owner-occupation in England fell in 2006 for the first time since 1939 (36). We can expect to see a lot more of such bogus solutions to the affordability crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people may come to float around on a Sargasso Sea in housing – a lifeless, becalmed graveyard not of ships, but of all those who rent, pay maintenance costs, and yet can only dream of owning a whole home. Many may stare at electricity meters, lash up microgeneration meters, and turn off standby lights; many more will also have to stare at monthly or weekly statements or webpages from their landlords, telling them just how much rent they owe, and how little of their homes they own.

Once again, however, there may be an upside for Blair’s successor. Those few lucky teachers, health workers, policemen, probation officers and, of course, planners who do manage to gain key worker housing may grumble about their lot, but they are likely to be grateful enough for the subsidies they receive. Whether dedicated to their jobs or docile by nature, they are unlikely to want to upset the state when it’s both their employer and their landlord.

There is another aspect of the financialisation of housing that we should note. It is not just a consumer but also a business-to-business affair. Just as housing quangos feel an urge to merge more than to build anew, so British housebuilders believe that acquiring another company is easier than raising output. As The Economist enthuses, in Britain:

‘the only things hotter than the prices of the houses for sale are the firms that build them. On 26 March Taylor Woodrow and George Wimpey agreed upon a £5billion ($9.8billion) merger to create the country’s largest housebuilder…. Of the country’s 10 biggest builders in 2002, only six remain. The rest have been taken over by the three largest firms. Four years ago the top three firms controlled about 20 per cent of the market; now they have around 30 per cent.’ (37)

But how has all this M&A really come about? Here, it’s worth recalling the impact of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the US of the Great Depression. As an economic programme, the New Deal appeared to be a leftward swing to workers, farmers and ‘the little guy’; but in reality, large capitalists swallowed its regulations much more easily than small ones. It is the same story with Blair’s Britain. By smothering housebuilders in planning procedures and, more recently, energy requirements, New Labour has made the state’s longstanding monopoly over the right to develop land into a new stick with which to drive out small and medium housebuilders (38).


Over the next 10 years, we can expect Blair’s successor to make a lot of rhetoric about the need for higher rates of both refurbishment and new build. New Labour is worried about losing the votes of first-time buyers.

Ruth Kelly’s 29 New Growth Points, which promise 100,000 new dwellings across the East, South East, South West, East Midlands and West Midlands, are New Labour’s solution to the problem of housing supply. But if the stagnation of the Thames Gateway housebuilding programme is anything to go by, this measure will be too little and will come in late, if at all. The extra 100,000 homes will only happen by 2016, and then only ‘if all of the proposed growth is realised’ (39).

New Labour could come under pressure for its lethargy. On Sunday 13 May, protesters were on the streets of Brighton when Gordon Brown visited there, reminding him of his 1997 Budget declaration that he would ‘not allow house prices to get out of control and put at risk the sustainability of the future’ (40). There are more pressures, too, for an overhaul of planning: for example, ‘All Planned Out?’, a conference to be held from 18 to 19 May, will conduct an international interrogation of the British planning system (41). Nevertheless, the wheels of planning reform in housing look set to grind exceedingly slowly for a fair while.

In 2007, Blair has left us with a Britain in which the chimera of key worker housing is what leads some people into low-paid public sector professions. More than ever, too, the expense of housing acts as an impetus to cohabitation and marriage: Frederick Engels might now say not that ‘the single family is becoming the economic unit of society’ (42), but rather that the overpriced home has moved the double-income household from luxury to necessity.

Housing is, for me anyway, not nearly as fascinating a sector as, say, aerospace, pharmaceuticals or IT. But the green handmade house, and the money that goes with it, have come to dominate both the incompetent actions of a restless state and the popular imagination of the British. That is the dubious legacy of Blairism in everyday life.

Today Brown likes to attack NIMBYs for ‘condemning our children never to put a foot on the housing ladder’ (43). But exactly what kind of foot on the ladder does he have in mind? Is the first rung of that ladder about owning half a house, or about owning a quarter of it? It turns out that Brown wants to ‘combine’ building homes for ownership with what he calls ‘the building of houses for rent in a far more mobile and fluid society’ (44).

Great. Under Brown, people won’t have to buy any part of their accommodation at all. Instead, a Sargasso Sea of rent-only or mingy shared equity housing will ensure that they can change jobs, locations and houses smoothly and with ease. Well, flotsam and jetsam are also mobile and fluid. But they go nowhere. What intellectual heights and imaginative solutions our future prime minister has demonstrated….

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. He will speak at All Planned Out? in London on 18/19 May. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield explained that Britain’s housing boom is a phantom one, and that the government’s 2005 housing plan was all talk and no bricks. James Woudhuysen warned of the dangers of Brownfield Brutalism and praised big cities. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and planning.

(1) The map is here. See also Spy plane employed to shame owners of heat-loss homes by Lewis Smith, The Times, 4 May 2007

(2) Crossing the Threshold: 266 ways the State can enter your home by Harry Snook, Centre for Policy Studies, 21 April 2007

(3) A sample EPC is here

(4) Let’s build! Why we need five million new homes in the next 10 years by James Heartfield, Audacity, 2006

(5) See Actions for housing growth: creating a legacy of great places, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, February 2007

(6) See CLG Housing market: house prices from 1930, annual house price inflation, United Kingdom, from 1970, Table 502 and Average house price to reach £200,000 by end of 2008 by John Ward, Forecasting Eye, Centre for Economics and Business Research, 2 May 2007

(7) Build more houses to help key workers, Financial Times, 16 April 2007

(8) See CLG Housebuilding: permanent dwellings started and completed, by tenure, Great Britain Table 203

(9) Ibid

(10) See CLG CLG Household estimates and projections: Great Britain, 1961-2026, Table 401

(11) See CLG Statutory homelessness: Households in temporary accommodation Table 625

(12) Toyota banking on famed production ways in housing business by Yuri Kageyama, The Seattle Times, 15 June 2006

(13) For more on place making, see Cities of the Future, Engaging Cogs

(14) See the CLG’s summary of the work of Liverpool University’s Linda Sheridan, Comparative study of the control & promotion of quality in housing in Europe, 1999 and also Table 1

(15) See Unaffordable Housing: Fables and Myths by Alan W Evans and Oliver Marc Hartwich, Policy Exchange, 27 June 2005

(16) See The dangers of Brownfield Brutalism by James Woudhuysen

(17) See ONS Social Trends 37, 2007, p152

(18) Why is construction so backward? by James Woudhuysen and Ian Abley, Wiley, 2004

(19) Cooper, answer given at the annual conference of the Housing Forum, London, 18 April 2007

(20) See the Communities and Local Government website

(21) See HM Treasury, Budget 2007 paragraph 7.70, 21 March 2007

(22) CLG Code for Sustainable Homes: A step-change in sustainable home building practice, December 2006

(23) For a useful survey, see Touch me, feel me, renovate me by Joe Moran, New Statesman, 6 March 2006

(24) See CLG, Changes to Permitted Development: Consultation Paper1 – Permitted Development Rights for Householder Microgeneration, Consultation period 4, April 2007 to 27 June 2007

(25) The italics are in the original. See The battle for the living room, Design Management Journal, Vol 7, No 4, Fall 1996

(26) See the Energy Saving Trust website

(27) The rise of the machines, EST, 14 July 2006

(28) See In defence of individual ecofreedom by James Woudhuysen

(29) See David Miliband’s speech Public services and public goods: lessons for reform, London, 6 June 2006

(30) CLG, Code for Sustainable Homes, op cit, p10

(31) A kind of devolution, first article in the series Organisational innovation in public services, BT, 2002

(32) See CLG, Commission on Cohesion and Integration, Your chance to tell us what you think, consultation 6 November 2006 to 19 January 2007 [Extended until May 2007], p7

(33) HM Treasury, Budget 2007, 21 March 2007, Chart 1.1, p15

(34) See for example The Cave Review of Social Housing Regulation; Ends and Means: The future roles of social housing in England by John Hills, 20 February 2007

(35) CLG, The new HomeBuy Scheme

(36) Shared ownership: a struggle – but worth doing in the long run by Matthew Richards, Financial Times, 31 March 2007

(37) Builders on the block, 29 March 2007

(38) See CLG Communities England and Private Finance Initiative (Housing PFI)

(39) See CLG New Growth Points

(40) Details of the protest are here

(41) Details of the conference are here

(42) See Frederick Engels’ Barbarism and Civilization, chapter IX of Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State

(43) Brown to build five eco towns by David Cracknell, The Sunday Times, 13 May 2007

(44) Brown outlines “eco towns” plan, BBC News, 13 May 2007

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