• Mon. Apr 15th, 2024

North East Connected

Hopping Across The North East From Hub To Hub

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By Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE, co-founder of propertyCEO  

Can you remember a time when we haven’t had a housing crisis? It seems to have been a perennial problem for government after government. One of the greatest challenges for politicians is that it seems impossible to solve our housing issues without upsetting people. And when faced with an issue that’s both hugely important and not easy to fix, politicians have a tendency to kick the can down the road. They’re not allowed to ignore the problem and hope it goes away, because that would be irresponsible. But equally they won’t actually change anything meaningful because it upsets voters and gives the Opposition something to beat them up with. Which isn’t something you’d want to do when the next general election is only five years away, tops.

So, rather cynically, we end up with a plate spinning exercise where success can be counted as reaching the next election with the plate still intact and everyone thinking that a solution is around the corner and it’s all still work-in-progress.

Cracking the housing nut

Let’s consider the scale of the problem. Both main political parties agree that we need to be building 300,000 new homes each year. And if you say it quickly, that number can wash over you without really resonating. But if I told you that there are a total of 275,000 homes in Oxfordshire, then you’ll start to appreciate that building a small county’s worth of homes each year is no small task. And you may well also start to wonder where exactly these new counties are going to fit. After all, there’s not a lot of empty space on the map, and you can’t just plonk 300,000 new homes in the middle of nowhere and expect people to want to live there. Even if you created brand new towns, they still need to go somewhere and be connected to everywhere else.

Back in the day we used to have a new town building programme. The New Towns Act 1946 reflected the need for post-war reconstruction but also acknowledged that simply adding to London’s sprawl wasn’t the answer. Instead, we saw a total of 27 new towns emerge, including the likes of Stevenage, Crawley, Bracknell, Hemel Hempstead, Peterlee, and Runcorn. Milton Keynes was one of the later creations and went on to become the largest with some 117,000 households today.

England’s biggest new town since Milton Keynes is Northstowe, near Cambridge. Here around 1,200 homes have been built out of a planned 10,000, although some six years after the first house was built, it still has no shop, pub, doctor’s surgery, or café. It does have a post box however, which one assumes will be the hub of all social activity until a café eventually turns up. Despite its growing pains, Northstowe serves to underline the scale of the challenge. The village/town is on a 20-year journey to reach its 10,000th home, yet we need the equivalent of 30 Northstowes to be built every year if we’re to meet the housing target. And that’s no mean feat, even if you had lots of places to put them all; places where nobody minded you building a new town.

The simple truth is that everyone would quite like the housing crisis to be solved, but no one wants any houses built anywhere near them. We are all NIMBYs at heart, and as many a local MP has found out, people get well and truly exercised if you try and build pretty much anything, anywhere.

It means we simply end up in another Groundhog Day. Once again, we have a load of pre-election promises being made by politicians that offer a glimmer of hope that, for some reason, their party will be able to do what all their predecessors have failed to do. And as long as their words don’t become actions, they’re on pretty safe ground. It’s only when implementation comes around that the public starts getting twitchy, which is when the whole sorry cycle repeats itself again.

The other big issue with the housing crisis is that you can’t solve it within a single parliamentary term. Five years simply isn’t long enough; it will have to be a 10-20 year plan, minimum.

Suggesting a solution

So, my suggestion for knotty problems such as the housing crisis is that we take them out of the political agenda and establish a cross-party group that will be responsible for recommending a solution and then implementing it. In this way, the housing agenda is removed from the short-term party politicking that sees nothing change, and instead becomes a long-term solution that all parties have signed up to, with an agreement that the implementation does not get derailed, irrespective of any change of government.

Is it the perfect solution? No. Will it be easy to get everyone on board and to work out the terms of engagement. Same answer. Will some members of the public be completely outraged with whatever is proposed? Ditto. But then if solving the housing crisis was a walk in the park, we’d have done it by now. Ultimately, we need to find a solution that doesn’t rely on a vague hope that the next bunch of ministers will somehow magic up a palatable solution, because frankly that’s cloud cuckoo land.

As luck would have it, there are some bright people working in Westminster. Let’s task the best of them with coming up with the optimum solution with the shackles off and see where it takes us. It certainly can’t be any less productive than what we’ve seen up to now, or what we’re likely to see tomorrow.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ritchie Clapson CEng MIStructE is an established developer, author, industry commentator, and co-founder of leading property development training company propertyCEO. To discover how you can get into property development, visit www.propertyceo.co.uk

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