Where are the right places for England's new homes?

Some houses. Image: Getty.

A housing white paper is due in the New Year, one which communities secretary Sajid Javid promises will get “more of the right homes built in the right places”. But where are the right places?

As we know, the housing shortage is not felt equally everywhere. Regional price growth has varied enormously since the crash. But even within regions there are large differences between areas. Nor can these problems be expressed purely in terms of house prices, either, because prices are determined as much by economic demand and speculation as anything else.

To try to establish a sense of the under-supply of new housing at a local level, we compared last year’s output against expected household growth, which is what you might say – not without a few caveats, admittedly – is the rate at which new homes are thought to be needed.

Nationally, the net supply of housing in 2015-16 was about 90 per cent of the annual household growth rate that is projected by government statisticians for the period 2019-39. But that national average disguises very large variations between areas that are producing more than enough homes, and others that are falling a long way short.

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Worse, those areas that are expected to grow most rapidly over the next 25 years are, on the whole, already performing least well against their household formation projections. London, which taken as a whole is the fastest-growing area of the country, had new homes equivalent to only 55 per cent of its long-term household growth rate. Only three boroughs (if you include the City of London; not technically a borough and tiny in population terms) built above that rate.

The next 30 fastest growing areas of the country after London fared similarly: only five were keeping up with their household formation projections, and 21 were not even doing as well as the national average of 90 per cent. London plus the next 30 areas that are expected to see the most household growth over the next 25 years – collectively accounting for 48 per cent of it – supplied just 36 per cent of new housing last year.

This was not confined to the South-East, either, but was an issue in places that are the focus of economic growth strategies, such as Greater Manchester (Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan), which supplied new homes equivalent to 68 per cent of its long-term growth rate. The West Midlands (Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton) managed just a little bit more, at 71 per cent.


This raises a variety of issues. The most obvious one, perhaps, is how do we ensure those areas with an under-supply build more homes? This is a many-faceted problem, of course, probably requiring local investigation, although quite a few people have justifiably pointed out a strong correlation between the red patches on this map – denoting a shortfall in housing – and the green belt.

But it also raises important questions about whether those areas that are failing so badly to keep up with household growth will ever keep up with it – and whether the answer doesn’t lie in trying to draw off demand to other areas.

In some case this might require only local movement. There are examples already in, say, Oxfordshire, which has a county-wide surplus of homes measured against household formation, despite a deficit in Oxford itself. This kind of thing lies at the heart of the planning system in the “duty to cooperate”, in which local authorities are meant to share the burden of household growth across boundaries.

But there are limits to this, as can be seen in London and the broad swathes of the South-East in which there are hardly any areas that are keeping up with their own household growth, never mind their neighbours’ too.

And so it may also require a degree of regional rebalancing, from London and the South-East in particular and towards some of those areas that are coping better already with household growth. This may happen naturally to some extent, as a result of these very pressures and their impact on house prices. But for demand to shift on a bigger, more meaningful scale would require substantial regional jobs growth, and the transport infrastructure to support it.

Where are “the right places” for new homes, then? Perhaps the more important question is: where do we want them to be?

Daniel Bentley is editorial director at the think tank Civitas and tweets @danielbentley. His briefing paper “Housing supply and household growth, national and local” was published this week.

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On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.