Viewpoint: James Heartfield
Not everyone wants to see housing numbers capped. James Heartfield argues that we are missing a great opportunity to build a new city in the Thames Estuary
"Despite government promises to the contrary, there has been no step-change in house-building in the Thames Gateway. At its London end, only 18 000 new homes are promised by the end of 2007. In Thurrock, just 5300 are promised by the end of 2016, on top of the 4300 built between 1998 and 2003.
This is the story you will not hear. Instead, press reports constantly threaten a great concreting over of the countryside. Not surprisingly, people get scared - especially because the threats are repeated over and over again. But the truth is that, despite the promises, there has been no marked increase in house building in the Thames Gateway, or anywhere else in the UK for that matter.
Thames Gateway. Image: James Heartfield
On the contrary: house building is at an all time low - lower in fact than at any time since the Second World War. That is why house prices are so high. There are too many buyers chasing too few homes. The houses being built are not enough to meet the supply, and so the prices spiral in one direction only.
The fears that we are going to concrete over the countryside are wrong because so few new homes are being built. But we could increase number of new homes by five million over the next ten years and it still would barely make a dent in the available greenfield land. That is because Britain is overwhelmingly green - even if the bit of it you choose to live in is built up. Fully three quarters of Britain is earmarked for farming, but only one tenth is built up. What's more, nearly a third of that farmland is not needed. There is more than enough room to expand into without substantially undermining Britain's countryside.
The government earmarked the Thames Gateway as the site that would lead Britain's housing regeneration. For too many people that only spells disaster. But it ought instead to be seen as a great opportunity. You could fit a city the size of Tokyo into the Thames Gateway. The four million homes the authorities estimate we will need by 2016 could all be built in the Thames Gateway without overcrowding, and still it would be overwhelmingly green.
Commentators have a tendency to throw up problems to the development, not because they want those problems to be solved, but because they do not want the development to happen. One such is the challenge of transport and the cross rail link. Of course, a big increase in homes means that there should be an extension of the rail network into central London. That could be a fantastic opportunity. But the critics are not interested in solutions, only problems.
Finally, though I hesitate to say it, the identification of the Thames Gateway is not naturally the best solution to Britain's housing shortage - I hesitate because I do not want to add to the mountain of excuses for not getting on with the building.
But the reason that the Thames Gateway was identified as the region for growth is the wrong one. The government's priority was determined by the great number of brown-field sites in the Thames Gateway, an area of sporadic development that has left lots of pockets of derelict land.
It is a perverse preoccupation of the planners that most new development should happen on brown-field land. This does not make any sense, at all. If that rule was strictly adhered to, no additional homes would ever get built, only new homes on existing sites. But Britain needs additional homes because it has more people, more families and more earners than ever before.
Though the government says it wants to see more homes built, it constantly puts barriers in the way of house builders. Insisting that new homes are built on derelict land, which presents all kinds of problems from clearing to drainage and uneven spaces, the authorities have created another arbitrary disincentive to builders. But there is no reason that building must happen on brown-field land. There is no reason why land should not be built up in one era, and returned to nature in another. Building on green-field land is no threat to Britain's vast countryside, and a lot less wasteful of resources.
Without the pressure to build on the Thames Gateway, developers would choose to build in quite different places. The developments to the north, around Cambridge are one example. Most developers would prefer to build westwards up the M4 corridor. That would present far fewer problems, like drainage and transport. Also, allowed to choose for themselves, developers and homebuyers would prefer new homes on the South Coast, to take advantage of the surplus farmland and clement weather.
Still, if the Thames Gateway has been chosen as the site for new growth, why not make a go of it? The area is beautiful, and full of original features. If only our architects could leave off designing Arts Centres they could set themselves the challenge to make a fantastic new city on the mouth of the Thames. It is time to stop inventing problems and start working out solutions."
James Heartfield is the author of 'Let's Build!' Why we need five million homes in the next 10 years - and a director of the building think-tank Audacity. www.audacity.org
last updated: 04/06/2008 at 16:24