Friday 2 September 2011

Grow up as well as out

It has been fascinating to see debate about housing take over the news and comment pages in the last couple of weeks, started by arguments over the government's very radical draft National Planning Policy Framework and carried on this week by a timely intervention by the National Housing Federation, cannily exploiting the media's obsession with homeownershp.

I'm delighted to see some serious discussions about housing supply (this one between Tom Chance of the London Greens and Matt Griffith of PricedOut being a great example), but I do have a gripe, which is that most of the supply debate has focused almost exclusively on the rights and wrongs of making more sites in greenfield areas available for development. I agree we do need some of those, and we should be thinking about both how to expand existing towns and maybe planning a few new ones, we can't ignore the fact that the greatest demand for new housing is where housing already is, in our existing urban and suburban areas. Given the scarcity of housing many people would live in a new town or former greenfield estate if we build them, but most of them would prefer to live where the facilities and transport and the other people already are.

The focus on new greenfield sites suits the big housebuilders, who in many cases already own them and understandably want to be able to freely pick and choose which to develop. But there's no guarantee they would build out and release those sites onto the market any faster. We need to improve competition in housebuilding, and that means making it easier for anyone, including homeowners and smaller housebuilders, to redevelop the existing housing stock. This would include allowing homeowners to add floors to their houses, and replacing houses with flats.

Now, some neighbours hate this kind of thing, so they complain to the politicians and the politicians put policies in local plans about 'respecting local context' and new development being 'in keeping' with neighbouring properties, and so on. At every point it seems like the easy thing to do is to push development elsewhere. But in the aggregate this has a huge cost, because we end up not building where people want to live but building where most of them don't want to live, just to please people who don't like the idea of housing development nearby. Letting those are already housed push out those who aren't is not just hypocritical, it's also deeply unsustainable since densifying existing areas saves huge amounts of energy.

Our towns and cities need to be able to change in response to society's needs. They need to grow upwards as well as outwards.

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