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The Government inherited a target of 4.4 million new homes between the years 1991 to 2016, of which only a few hundred thousand have been built, and an estimation that only half of them would be built on previously developed, or brownfield, sites. Alarm bells rang with the announcement last month of two major incursions into green belt land and the imposition of a higher target for West Sussex. Then came the Deputy Prime Minister's article in The Times, with its reassuring assertion that the planning system needs modernising and decentralising, and with its welcome emphasis on urban regeneration. It is to be hoped that next month's statement of intent will shorten the targets to, say, five-year tranches, and will permit local authorities to contribute to the methodology, based on their knowledge of local needs and social trends.
As with the remarkable change in public opinion about the road building, so this altered attitude to house building affects a broad spectrum and all political parties. In both instances it stems from a perception of how the countryside, especially in South-East England, has been carved up and reduced. This perception has been masked due to the undoubted success of our strict planning regulations relating to buildings outside urban and village boundaries, and to the protection of listed buildings.
Our countryside is still incredibly beautiful. But unless urgent restraints are imposed quickly on greenfield housing, we may yet live to see the doom envisaged by environmentalists of an earlier generation, such as the left-wing intellectual, C.E.M. Joad, who wrote in 1937:
Mention of Joad should remind us that the quid pro quo of popular support for the countryside is greater accessibility to it, a subject which will come to the fore with the Government's promised Bill. Incidentally, I feel that it is important for country dwellers to appreciate that, in order to preserve what they want in matters of housing, as of agriculture and sport, they need to win over the hearts and minds of millions of town dwellers. I do not think their cause is helped by the proposition that they all understand the countryside better simply because they live in it. Few of them are associated with agriculture, and Joad's vision of a universal suburbia already exists in terms of lifestyle.
The other side of the coin is the question of urban regeneration. Obviously, brownfield sites are limited in number and size, especially in the South East. But one suspects that many more could be winkled out if greenfield sites were unavailable, or made less attractive to builders by fiscal means. Brownfield sites are very unevenly spread, and it may be better to maximise pressure on local authorities to find them, rather than to set arbitrary percentages. There is also a great potential from derelict and unoccupied buildings.
Urban housing is also more likely to appeal to those who are living without children, particularly the young and the ever-increasing numbers of the elderly and old. Thus it can be built at a greater density, which does not imply a return to the brutal architecture of the 1960s, but rather to the terraced houses that had existed previously, with their more congenial opportunities for communal intercourse. It is ironic that, in seeking solutions for the 21st century, we should be reverting to the 19th in terms of urban planning and the use of railways. The most expensive housing anywhere is in the terraced streets and squares of Kensington and Chelsea.
We are an affluent post-industrial society living in a confined space. Nearly all of us would like a house or flat of our own from the age of 18 onwards. If this aspiration can only be met by making unacceptable inroads into our restricted countryside, we should refuse to meet that need, just as it is now accepted that the projected needs for new roads cannot be met. If our present prosperity continues to increase, which cannot, of course, be taken for granted, then the need for more cars and houses is, in truth, insatiable. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, on raising this important subject for debate.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I wish to concentrate on one narrow aspect of this very important issue which my noble friend Lord Marlesford has so excellently raised. I refer to the validity of the Government's housing projections. I begin with the conclusion rather than the argument. I believe the projections to be wrong. I thought they were wrong under the previous government, and I think they are wrong, misguided and dangerous now.
I am not alone in taking that view. As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, Sir Crispin Tickell, the convener of the British Government Panel on Sustainable Development, has said that the assumptions on which the forecasts are made are spurious. That is his statement. That was not said by just anybody, but by the convener of the British Government Panel on Sustainable Development. He went on to say that they should not be used for planning purposes. It is hard to think of a clearer message that something is badly wrong.
Secondly, there is no doubt that the huge figures which then cascade down into county structure plans, borough planning and so on create a panic among planners which leads them to cast a shadow over large swathes of countryside as well as urban areas when we
Thirdly, I am as pleased as anyone to hear the Deputy Prime Minister say that it is now the end of "predict and provide" in housing. If that means anything--I hope that it does--it means that we say goodbye to the whole concept of huge housing predictions on which we then try to build a whole set of county plans. Fourthly, as we have heard, the figure of 4.4 million is for households, which is not quite the same as new homes and houses, many of which have already been built.
Fifthly--I should like to concentrate on this point--there are the figures themselves. It is clear that they should never have been bundled together in the way that they were. The figures were, I believe, the invention of officials in the Department of the Environment, some now retired, who looked upon their compilation as an interesting statistical task not really related to real life. First, it is clear, taking the content bit by bit, that the figure of 500,000 extra housing units allocated for immigration is wildly high. Immigration experts who have analysed it say that it is based on unrealistic assumptions. Secondly, there is the social housing content. Obviously, we want to see more affordable housing, but there is no doubt that the estimate of how much social housing needs to be built does not match the Government's expenditure figures or any intentions and plans in any other part of government. The estimate is probably way over the top. However, those are relatively minor over-estimates, probably accounting for between half a million and three-quarters of a million of the extra houses.
The big one is the question of cohabitation. There is absolutely no doubt that the figure of 4.4 million contains an assumption about the desire of people to live alone, in individual households. Many people do not want to live alone but are forced to do so by unhappy circumstances. The idea that living alone is a trendy and politically correct thing to do, which ran in high fashion in the 1960s and 1970s, no longer exists. The figures tell us that. Cohabitation is greatly on the increase again and has been since the early 1980s. The figures are telling the planners something that the planners have so far refused to listen to. The people are speaking to the policy makers, not the other way round. One estimate is that a proper, up-to-date projection of cohabitation trends today would suggest that we need 1.4 million fewer houses than we are forecast to need in the existing 4.4 million figure.
The figure also contains a heavy estimate for the move to the south. Again, that was a trend of the 1960s when people thought that you had to come to the south east. The jobs pattern is now different. Although there are still tremendous disparities in work availability, there is no doubt that the feeling that you have to move to the already overcrowded south east to look for a job has gone. People are now far less ready to rush southwards in search of a home and a job.
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