We can solve the UK’s housing crisis – with a little imagination | John Harris

Too many of the new houses being built in Britain are unaffordable or badly constructed. But viable alternatives exist

Housebuilding, housebuilding, housebuilding. Last year, Theresa May pledged to make “the British dream a reality by reigniting home ownership in Britain once again”, and insisted she was taking “personal charge” of the effort to solve the country’s housing problems. Not long after, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, promised to eventually ensure the construction of 300,000 new homes a year. And fair play to the government, perhaps: in 2016- 2017, 184,000 new homes were built in England – the highest figure since the crash of 2007-8, and possible proof that the prime minister’s dream of a country building “more homes, more quickly” was starting to be realised.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of holes in this vision – not least the Tories’ underlying belief that the only homes worth talking about should be privately bought and sold, reflected in the paltry amount of supposedly social housing added to England’s stock in the same period: 5,380 dwellings for “social rent”, 24,350 for “affordable rent” and 11,810 classed as “intermediate affordable”. The very idea of “affordable”, moreover, has been twisted out of shape: it now denotes rent levels of up to 80% of the local market rate, which in many cases – London is the best example – is clearly not affordable at all.

A sense of mad economics now runs deep in all parts of the housing economy: 2017 was the year that the construction giant Bovis admitted to moving thousands of people into homes that were unfinished, and offered homebuyers millions of pounds in compensation. Last March Shelter reported that more than half of buyers of new-build homes in England have had major problems with construction, fixtures and fittings. By way of a grim punchline, in December the chairman of the huge housebuilder Persimmon – a company given a substantial helping hand by George Osborne’s help-to-buy scheme, and the focus of plenty of complaints about basic building standards – resigned after news broke that its chief executive was in line to be paid a bonus of £110m.

Six months before, the mess of institutional snobbery and racism tangled up in housing policy had been brought to the surface by the Grenfell Tower disaster; last week’s Guardian reports about residents of a block in Croydon built using the same infamous cladding being charged vast sums to replace it have given the whole saga an awful new twist. On and on the stories go, underlining an inescapable truth: that if any aspect of our national life embodies Britain’s failure to either deal with the present or intelligently plan for the future, it is the homes we live in.

Travel around the country, look at the housing developments that increasingly ring our towns and cities, and one big question ought to spring to mind: do any of them reflect the best design, the changing way we live, or how environmental thinking ought to be transforming architecture? Most new houses are seemingly built according to the same templates, are frequently sold at stupidly high prices, and are too often full of snags and faults. Ordinarily, they will be exercises in faux-Georgian kitsch, built according to the architectural prejudices introduced to the culture by that dilettantish ignoramus Prince Charles, and clustered in developments named to evoke some lost, misty England of solid cottages and children playing hopscotch on the cobbles: Knights’ Rise, Saxon Fields, Monarchs Keep.

The rooms in their houses are likely to be cramped: Britain is reckoned to have the smallest new-build homes in Europe, partly because there are no mandatory national space standards. And too many of these places lack the shared spaces and amenities that might give them some small sense of community: meeting halls, sizeable play areas, any space for businesses beyond a single small supermarket.

What is going on here? Since 1995, the total value of UK land has increased more than fivefold. According to the Valuation Office, whereas the average price of agricultural land in England is £21,000 per hectare, the equivalent with planning permission for housing now comes in at a cool £6m. Impossible land prices cut out developers beyond the tiny handful of giants who dominate the market. The sums they have paid for their plots have consequences not just for house prices, but basic standards: developers too often try to make their profits by building houses as cheaply as possible, and squeezing the share given over to “affordable” homes.

Meanwhile, from ecological standards, through planning policy, to regulations governing housing associations, the government has done what Tory governments always do, and pursued a deregulation drive. The planning departments of local authorities have been blitzed by austerity, leaving councils without the expertise to meaningfully oversee new housebuilding proposals. The results are plain to see.

You could begin to rebalance the financial context for housebuilding via the kind of land value tax mentioned in the last Labour manifesto, which would bring down the prices of plots by discouraging the hoarding of potential housing sites. But that should only be the start. In the Netherlands, local authorities use the subtly titled Expropriation Act to buy land at current-use value, which avoids the economics suddenly becoming insane once planning permission is granted. In keeping with the fact that they have power that councils in Britain can only dream about, the same country’s local governments tend to have passionate and exacting planners and in-house architects who insist that their localities get sustainable, well-designed homes.

I spoke last week to an architect who had spent time in the suburbs of Amsterdam and Utrecht, and rejoiced in not just the “unique designs” used for the homes there, but their surrounding environment: “lots of waterways; lush, mature planting; streetscapes that aren’t car-dominated; even nice surface materials on the pavements and roads”.

We could achieve such wonders here, if we tried. For the next couple of months, Bristol’s Architecture Centre is running a big season of exhibitions and events centred on the state of British housing and how to do things better. At the suggestion of the organisers, I recently spent a morning at the Hanham Hall development on the eastern edge of the city . This was built thanks to the Carbon Challenge eco-housing plan originated by the last Labour government as part of plans for all new homes to be carbon-neutral by 2016 (the Tories binned this aim the year before the deadline).

Designed by the award-winning architect Simon Bayliss according to stringent requirements, its homes – split between all types of tenure – are brazenly modern, but thanks to their human scale and inspired use of wood, they feel homely and familiar. Their interiors are intended to be flexible so as to accommodate the needs of families as they change and grow. There are allotments, greenhouses, a spacious park and even beehives. The people I talked to there spoke warmly about “a holiday villa-type environment”, an enduring sense of community spirit, and one unlikely aspect of the development’s story: the fact that it was built by the ubiquitous developer Barratt.

It was a cold, grey day, but it was obvious what all this represented: a small shaft of sunlight illuminating not just how badly things have gone wrong but the fact that, with a reasonable amount of effort and intelligence, one of our most vivid national failures could eventually be put right. Until it is, the prime minister’s British dream risks becoming a waking national nightmare in which nostalgic designs mask deep structural problems: the cruellest of allegories for Britain in 2018.

• John Harris is a Guardian columnist


John Harris

The GuardianTramp

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