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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Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.