Nice Houses for Ducks


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.

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How to achieve space and affordability in British housing

Mark will well know that Sir Peter Hall has a long history of showing that planners are wasting their time. Since the late 1960s in particular Hall has repeatedly but academically exposed the failures of the post-1947 planning system, only to publicly argue through the Town and Country Planning Association that better planning and better planners can solve the problem.

Planning in Britain has existed since 1909, when the first Act served as an early slum clearance programme. For another four decades British planners found that it was easier to knock down bad housing for the poor than force the building of spacious homes for every household, no matter how meagre their income. In 1947 Britain attempted a Welfare State to build decent homes for all. That involved the innovation of nationalising development rights - a situation that persists to this day, and which we explored in our May 2007 London conference All Planned Out. The 1947 nationalisation of development rights, which Hall academically recognised as innovative in the early 1970s, left land in private ownership. The state did not nationalise land itself. It nationalised the freedom to build on land, and established local planning committees to reallocate development rights as planning approvals. A serious power to elected local councils, and their appointed planning officers.

Many academics fail to see the significance of this innovation in 2009. Many are like Hall, who described the national denial of development rights in the 1970s as CONTAINMENT, when council house building was only beginning to end in Britain.

Mark has identified the conundrum, but does not explain why Britain is building small unaffordable housing largely through the private sector, even after the housing bubble of 1997 to 2007 has burst.

Construction costs £800/m2 for the volume house builders, ranging up to £1,200/m2 or even £1,500/m2 when other delivery models are attempted, and architects (like me) try to be "innovative".

So a volume house builder should easily be able to build more affordable housing to the MINIMAL but abandoned Parker Morris space standards. A 100m2 home should cost no more than £80,000 to build. Add some fees (£5,000) and some utilities (£5,000) and a family home in Britain based on the MINIMAL ergonomic and domestic studies of the Parker Morris Committee should cost about £90,000 to build.

Except of course for the LAND. Developable land for housing can cost many millions a hectare, encouraging the volume house builders to cram a number of homes onto the site, which Lord Richard Rogers made into an environmental virtue, as Mark says. Something that Parker Morris rejected as over-development, because his committee advocated space inside AND outside the home. Parker Morris advocated balconies AND gardens, with parking space. Not only adequate room sizes and numbers for the occupancy level.

This is where Mark loses the thread of the argument. Land in Britain is available in abundance. It is redundant farmland. 90% of Britain is undeveloped, and 75% is farmed, with a third of that in some form of environmental subsidy scheme to stand idle and unproductive. Much of that redundant land is in the South East, where housing demand is greatest. BUT IT CAN'T BE BUILT ON because the planning system has nationalised the development rights of farmers, since 1947. If redundant farmland is not planned for housing, it cannot be considered "developable" and is then worth only £5,000 to £15,000 a hectare.

People could buy redundant farmland at that low price, and divide it into plots. But if they tried to build a £90,000 home on it the planners would demolish it with the full backing of the courts and the police. Individuals have tried, and lost their money with their affordable home.

Why does the British state knock down the houses of people who try to solve their own housing problems? This is what Mark must explain, because it is what Sir Peter Hall consistently ignores in his long run and well rewarded defence of reformist planning.

What if anyone, including the volume house builders, could build £90,000 family houses in 2009, on land that cost agricultural value, and sell them for a little over £100,000 each? What would happen?

The answer is obvious. Few would buy an old house on the EXISTING market valued at £250,000 when they could buy a big new one far more cheaply in the same vicinity. The inflated trade in Britain's 26 million EXISTING homes would collapse. The mortgage market worth £1.2 trillion "secured" on the existing stock, valued at about three times that in 2009, would collapse. Finance capital would be threatened.

So while Mark is on the side of the angels, wanting space and affordability, he has to address why the British state would never allow people to build freely on redundant farmland. It would collapse a significant section of British capitalism, affecting the wider political economy of the country. Planners don't understand that they work for the Treasury and THE CITY, but their professional maintenance of the national denial of development rights is essential to the lucrative mortgage lending sector.

Many today want a return to state subsidised council house building THROUGH THE PLANNING SYSTEM. Mark may be among them. This makes no sense when land is inflated through the planning system that dates from 1947.

The only way forward for Britain is to take the pain. We must end the nationalisation of development rights, to set Britain's farmers free to sell their land for housing. That would collapse the existing housing market on the 10% of Britain that already exists, removing the "security" on inflated mortgages that working people simply don't need to be burdened with. A debt of £250,000 is not needed when £100,000 will do. Then why not ask why construction can't be driven down below £500/m2... Also there are other sources of finance in the world of 2009 to fund a twenty-first century British house building boom. Working people could even set up BUILDING SOCIETIES again, and break free of THE CITY.

A council house building programme would only allow the state to look like it cared, when actually it maintains the condition of unaffordability through the planning system that Hall, and I suspect Clapson, both support.

The large numbers of British low paid households have been CONTAINED. The question in 2009 is whether people will put up with being contained by the denial of the right to build a home. Clapson may want a home to be a right. A home should not be a right. The freedom to build is the thing that matters. Freedom from planners backed by the police. And freedom from planning academics.

We could have another conference to thrash this out again, after the housing bubble. I'd happily work on that. But a more interesting prospect is to attempt to get beyond academic study, and to work to break the planning law of 1947.

Ian Abley