During the long hot summer of the expenses scandal in British politics, one of the most bizarre stories concerned a Conservative MP who claimed from the public purse for a second home: a place for his ducks. It wasn’t any old duck house, however, but a ‘Stockholm’ floating model, valued at over £1,500. It is over 5 feet high.
If only two ducks lived in the duck house, with its prime waterside location and spectacular views of the gardens beyond, their living space would be on a more generous specification – measured by their weight – than the hundreds of thousands of new homes that have been built in Britain in recent years. For one of the lesser-commented upon hypocrisies of the expenses scandal has been the chasm between those with two or more houses, and the many thousands who have just bought a home to find they couldn’t swing a duck around in it, let alone a cat.
The BBC recently reported some of the new homes are so small that they have been rejected by the housing associations: these are the agencies that have taken over a great deal of the rented housing in Britain since the Conservatives abolished council house building in 1980. Housing associations are empowered to purchase some homes from the private market for rent to their tenants, or for shared ownership schemes.
Good housing for those who cannot afford private ownership should be welcomed, and the housing associations congratulated for dismissing the smallest new dwellings. But the key question is: why should so much of the new housing seem to be built for birds, not people?
British new housing today is rapidly becoming a scandal, at least for those who have to live in it. The BBC report found that in some new dwellings valued at over £200,000 ($326,000), rooms were tiny, and many basic construction faults were to be found. And Britain is now building the smallest new homes in the developed world: in Holland the average size of a new build home is 115 square metres, and in Japan it is 92.5 square metres. In Britain a paltry 76 square metres is common. (BBC News, New Homes Rejected for Social Housing (16 May 2009))
The causes of this cramped and unhappy state of affairs cannot completely be laid at the door of New Labour. During the 1980s the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher terminated the obligation of private builders to construct new homes according to the Parker Morris standards set out in the report of the same name in 1961. The Toryism of Thatcher may have been more stridently in favour of the aspirational home owner than the more ‘one-nation’ Conservatism of Harold Macmillan, who legislated them, but these guidelines should not have been revoked. Whatever their faults, those standards laid down decent room sizes, and allowed for more generous interpretations of internal uses of space. Council tenants and private home owners benefited from both.
Now, following the abolition of Parker Morris, it was possible to build new dwellings with a double bedroom that was marginally bigger than a double bed. This tendency to cram became commonplace, however, under Labour, whose housing policies mindlessly follow the idea that, when it comes to housing, tiniest is next to godliness.
This brilliant approach arose in the 1990s as part the notion that creating higher densities in British cities would stimulate urban renewal. The formula was simple, or rather simplistic, and was best articulated by the leading architect Lord Rogers of Riverside. ‘Let’s cram our city centres’ he wrote provocatively. Of course, this was not for his usual clients for whom he designed spacious office blocks and sizeable swanky houses.
Rogers was appointed as Head of the Urban Task Force, commissioned by the New Labour government. Its report entitled Towards an Urban Renaissance (1999), called for flats to populate the city centres at high densities. And as for those sprawling suburbs around the outskirts of town, so popular with English home owners, they were to be retro-fitted to utilise existing green spaces for housing.
So much for verdant England. Even little parks and large private gardens are now vulnerable to development. Interestingly, the first illustration in Towards an Urban Renaissance is a photograph of the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who, of course, has two homes and more than one car. Needless to say, he welcomed the recommendations in the report since he likely never saw it applying to him or his friends.
Environmentalism has further accelerated the trend for the shrinking of the British home. The emphasis upon the Rogers-style compact city has been trumpeted by the Green Party and other environmental lobby groups because higher densities and small build theoretically cause less carbon emissions and use up less non-renewable sources of energy.
Yet let the obstreperous commoner be a bit put off by the high priests of cramming. Some of the most outspoken advocates of environmentalism come from wealthy patrician backgrounds, for example Jonathan Porrit and Prince Charles. Buckingham Palace and High grove House are hardly exercises in low-density living.
All this leads to some doubts about the democratic future under the influence of our feudalist betters. A recent article in Regeneration and Renewal magazine by Sir Peter Hall draws attention to research led by Marcial Echenique at Cambridge University. Echenique and his team compared the ‘Richard Rogers-style compact city’ with ‘market-led dispersal, US fashion’. Their findings raise some profound questions in an urban democracy:
The compact city cut carbon emissions by just 1 percent; but there were higher economic costs in outer areas where people still want to live, and where demand was greatest. Also, any social aspects of the compact city were to some extent undermined by crowding, exposure to noise and the crush on facilities.
American style sprawl by contrast raised energy use and CO2 emissions by almost 2 percent, but engendered lower house prices, less crowding and less road congestion. (Hall, Sir Peter ‘Planners may be wasting their time’, Regeneration and Renewal, 6 July, 2009)
None of this has yet created the momentum for a radical push back on housing policies, but it should. Conservative, Liberal and Labour MPs are now guiltily paying back their sums for using their expenses to buy their own often lavish second homes. It is striking how they have enjoyed a privileged access to accommodation which they, through legislation, would make all but unaffordable to millions outside the wealthiest classes.
Once upon a time our political class understood that they ignored the hopes of less-well-off owner occupiers at their peril. Labour’s spectacular victories in 1997 and 2001 owed much to the votes of those who wanted to get on the housing ladder, or who had just clambered onto it, and naturally wanted the best home for their money. Before then, under Thatcher, the Conservatives successfully garnered the support of the same class.
Now lamentably all the parties display little interest in the aspirations of working-class, lower middle-class and immigrant wannabe homeowners for a decent space. Instead they are to be treated like water fowl by those who generally have access to one or more homes. Some may do it in the name of being “green” but there’s a better term for what they are doing: hypocrisy and class privilege.
Mark Clapson is a social historian, with interests in suburbanisation and social change, new communities in England and the USA, and war and the built environment.