Magazine article The Spectator

More Destructive Than the Luftwaffe

Magazine article The Spectator

More Destructive Than the Luftwaffe

Article excerpt

According to our government, there is a shortage of affordable housing in this country, and particularly in the south of England. As a result the government, in the redoubtable, if humorous, figure of John Prescott, intends to build hundreds of thousands of new houses every year in order to meet this perceived 'demand'. Soon, everywhere you look south of the Wash there will be a profusion of stark naked Barratt estates, each consisting of 200 homes, every dwelling of which will - by law possess a disabled-access ramp and - by dint of fashion - a covered car port and eight square yards of lawn. Chav City cometh, every eight miles.

If this is an exaggeration, it is not much of one. Mr Prescott has already identified four areas where he will bung in most of the houses - the Thames 'gateway'; around Ashford in Kent; a square of Northamptonshire near Milton Keynes; and a soon-to-be-benighted area which will henceforth be known as the A11 Conurbation (sounds lovely, doesn't it?), stretching north for 60 miles from London to Peterborough.

But that's not all. The government has also accepted en bloc the recommendations of the Barker review final report, which swallows whole the absurd - and elsewhere discredited - notion of 'predict and provide' and recommends, among other things, a loosening or 'greater flexibility' of planning constraints. These 'constraints' are in fact the locally considered responses to proposed new developments, which have hitherto prevented hideous new bungalows being built in your neighbour's back garden. Kate Barker recommends that such localised, selfish nimbyism be ignored and the bungalows built regardless of local opposition.

The government's response to an apparent demand for more houses is not a conservative response. Nor for that matter is it a Green response or a socialistic response. It is a congenital idiot's response. In a fair world it would provide the opposition parties with a platform on which to campaign against and unseat the government - but for some reason the opposition parties seem reluctant to take up the fight, except for the Greens. The reason for this is that everybody else has accepted the shibboleth: we need more new houses.

The Barker review, published earlier this year, recommends the building of an additional 120,000 homes every year, on top of the 170,000 per year now being built. That's two new Middlesbroughs springing up in Surrey or Kent or Wiltshire every year (for these developments are intended to be primarily in the south of England). Except, of course, that these new towns won't be as pretty as Middlesbrough, with its dignified and forbidding Victorian public buildings, organic mix of period housing styles and architecturally interesting, if useless, transporter bridge. They will instead be towns from the pages of a forgotten J.G. Ballard dystopia. And they will stretch from Bodmin to Boston, an extra 30 square miles of factory-fired faux-brick and tinted concrete and disclosed plasterboard plus, of course, the inevitable local infrastructure - every year. For as long as it takes for the housing market to be bucked.

The surprising thing is that while the opposition parties also seem to have swallowed the notion that we need to build and build and build and build - the experts have their profound reservations. The general concept of predict and provide is now almost universally accepted as being inherently flawed. The early response to congested roads, for example, was to build new and bigger roads; but suddenly it was realised that this generous provision of ring roads and motorways and bypasses created more and more traffic; i.e., it actually exacerbated the problem. In other words, the demand expanded to fill the increased supply - and so the policy was by and large discontinued. So it should be with housing, where precisely the same economic factors apply. The British population is not increasing exponentially; it is scarcely increasing at all. …

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