The Myth of “Not Enough Land” in Britain


As stated in an article of last weeks Observer: ‘Britain’s housing crisis is a human disaster’. Despite the sweeping accuracy of this statement whilst reading the informing and opinionated article I caught myself rabidly annotating and critiquing the arguments within, this blog is a product of those notations. For a start, Rowan Moore’s analysis lacks an economic and ideological grounding. On top of this, his article focuses primarily on the “squeezed middle” and glosses over the stark realities of an increase in homelessness and the rabid attacks of austerity crippling local councils budgets. Any crisis in housing or even on the periphery disproportionately affects the poorest sector of society, forcing them even further into debt or at the extremes onto the streets. Even more than an economic problem is the issue an ideological and political one. Fruitful discussion and criticism of government and political party approaches to the subject is crucially lacking – something Moore does well – and the beckoning dawn of a generation of renters lack an ideological informed and political voice. Too much time is spent dwelling on long accepted facts like how much people spend on rent out of their earning and nostalgic looks back at a time when even working class families owned their own properties. If anything we should not view the situation of housing in Britain – and beyond – as an ongoing crisis to be halted and solved but as a transwreck whose impact has already done its damage. The task for left critics of such situations is to produce a critical analysis, accept it and move on.

Excessive harking back to decades ago when we had an effective (kinda) welfare state and at least some social housing should be critically avoided. Look not to eras long past in envy and longing, but seek to force a future greater than what currently exists. Task number one is to rebuke commonly purported myths followed by the political elite and their supporters. the largest of which is that we do not have enough land left in Britain for everyone who lives and will live here. As statistics show a mere 2% of land in Britain is utilized for housing, and even more shockingly only 9% is developed at all [see the Observer 15/03/15, p. 9]. Such statistics are both easily communicable and highly effective at informing citizens of the realities quickly. The reason that such analyses have not been previously exported is due to the ruling classes hostility to them. The idea that there is not enough land in Britain legitimizes xenophobic scapegoating of immigrants who have moved to Britain sometimes leaving family behind, simply to find work and support themselves. In this way an issue critically important for some is used and cast aside as a political tool by those in power. Interestingly the largest practical opposition to development of new land to be used for housing is a NIMBY-ist defense of traditional green areas or natural sightseeing views. Even more intriguing is the increasing popularity of such opinions in the last few decades, specifically embodied in the rise of support for the Green Party.

On a local level the party is often found mobilising to counter a newly threatened development of green space. Although I have sympathy for the origin of such resentment, all such short-term protests achieve is the misdirection of angry voters into reactionary green politics (to coin a phrase). Such use of popular energy and fervour for change is toxic and is partially the reason why little opposition is to be found regarding the lack of housing in Britain. The solution in this regard surrounds the lack of a long-term view and development plan, something which local councils could once provide. But the advent of austerity – now accepted by all major parties (including the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens) – has disempowered councils to think in such a way. Their borrowing powers limited and budgets radically sliced, all in concert to a wider scale ideological privatisation of British infrastructure and government.

Big_Think_Pyramid_scrambleA future of profit hungry construction firms focused not on socially affordable housing for the poor but more financially rewarding mansions for the rich appears bleak. Economically a political solution is hard, Moore’s 10 points are haphazard and occasionally financially poisonous. Number 1 stands out as particularly ominous. Even a left commentator such as myself knows that dropping inflation to zero in the housing market would imperil the very economic system currently in place. No solution can be found in such a foolish quasi-radical proposal. Inflation could perhaps be limited in certain areas, however not primarily focused on the housing sales market. As referred to earlier a generation of renting citizens has dawned at least for us plebeians) and we must do what we can to alleviate their conditions while formulating a radical solution to the housing crisis. Too many young people are locked in a vice-lock grip between dizzyingly high rents and atrociously bad living conditions. Nowhere is this more stark than London (the ultimate irony is that while I am writing this my gaze drifts to a wall riddled with mould in my room). Part of the problem in this regard is money-grubbing landlords who stack up various properties like houses of cards. Fuelled by entrepreneurial greed they snap us badly conditioned and highly populated properties, commonly forced to relinquish the management to a letting agency who have little or no regard for the occupants, except for their ability to product cash. Repairs are simply never carried out and pieces of broken plaster and patches of mould linger until the place collapses or becomes legally unlivable.

Point 10 is particularly powerful, and if tinkered with could allow councils to borrow money over the long term to build much needed public owned housing. In the short term however, councils should be allowed to build properties of a range of grades, renting some of the higher tier properties to raise funds to repay the borrowed money and continue construction projects for the future. In conclusion, the wide ranging issues surrounding housing in Britain are not going to go away any time soon, much to the delight of the right wing political parties. No major, or even semi-major political party display any serious interest in attempting to discuss, let alone solve, the problems we face. Until we have productive and critical discussion of the crisis in housing, particularly among young renters, our political overlords may continue to overlook and scapegoat to avoid the issue all together.

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