If the Tories want to fix the housing crisis, they need to think regionally

Theresa May addresses the National Housing Summit in September 2018. Image: Getty.

This month marks seven months since the re-launch of the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Back in March, Prime Minister Theresa May addressed an audience of town planners, urban designers, and developers promising to reform the system to promote more equal access to housing.

Since that speech, a new housing minister has been appointed, the government have announced a prospectus for new Garden Towns, the NPPF has undergone a further revision, and just last month May herself announced an extra £2bn in funding for social housing. Yet, despite all this, nothing seems to have really changed.

Although the £2bn for social housing gained May a rare standing ovation, her critics point out the funding won’t be available until 2022 and might eventually only deliver around 5,000 new homes. The call for new sustainable towns sounds equally ambitious, but a closer examination of the detail suggests the programme simply seeks to rebrand existing proposals. Although these announcements sound radical, neither is backed by the funding or decision-making powers necessary increase supply in the short to medium terms.

There have been no announcements on further commitments to infrastructure which would make poorly connected areas viable locations for development. Likewise, until extremely recently, there has been no mention of additional powers for Local Authorities to raise funds to build more council homes. Perhaps most disappointingly, the promotion of Garden Towns has not been accompanied by a discussion around shifting the dynamic of taxation from properties to land.

In the absence of any tangible increase in funding, May has previously sought to target disingenuous developers who hoard land to artificially inflate house prices. Given the Conservative’s predisposition to private delivery, the big stick mooted by the PM has been largely rhetorical.


Whilst reform in this area is undoubtedly welcome, forcing developers to accelerate build out rates won’t stop them overbidding for sites in the first place – nor will it address the local aversion to change that slows delivery. Most importantly perhaps, oversimplifying the roles of local communities and developers as heroes and villains respectively belies the multifaceted nature of pressures on housing. 

In September, Sky News published the results of detailed analysis that sought to dispel the myth of a monolithic national housing crises. Through an in-depth mapping exercise, its research argued the UK is simultaneously undergoing five separate crises related to a lack of both supply and demand, under-occupation, quality and credit. The analysis rebuffs the binary debate of supply and demand, rejecting the idea that building 300,000 homes a year is the answer to many of the challenges the UK faces.

The findings also demonstrate how the health of any given housing market is inexplicitly linked to strength of the local economy. It should come as no shock that the areas blighted by a lack of demand and quality are also characterised by high levels of deprivation and unemployment.

May’s government has rightly attracted some praise for discussing housing in more nuanced terms. It wasn’t too long ago that national discourse was reduced to an oversimplified, and often artificial choice of brownfield verses green belt development. Whilst the evolution beyond this is welcome, last month’s findings suggest housing policy requires far greater regional specificity if it is to address issues around social justice and equality.

Policy dreamt up in Westminster has a distinctly southern focus and is ill-equipped to deal with such a complex array of challenges. Solutions for the housing crisis must also be thought of in more holistic terms, taking in economic regeneration, infrastructure and the environment. Crucially, policy needs to be backed by adequate funds, power and long-term planning.

Until the government thinks in these terms, kind words on housing will continue to undermine social mobility rather than promote it.

Jas Bhalla is an architect and town planner.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.