The government has signaled a Keynesian-turn by seeking to camouflage increased public spending behind the hackneyed mantra ‘relax planning regulations’. This cry is the last refuge of scoundrel politicians making excuses for why we don’t have enough homes for people who need them and gets a ready echo from property developers who want to do what they like, where they like, without the pesky interference of a democratic process. This particular re-tread is related to the misnomered ‘Localism’ agenda that I wrote about here.
But planning policy raises bigger issues. One of the challenges that advocates for public housing constantly face is that it is synonymous with a totalitarian State, ergo, Communism. While the fall of the Soviet Union and its empire has made ‘Go Back to Russia’ an obsolete insult, it sometimes feels that the Cold War isn’t over in the minds of some. Osborne and Cameron’s rhetoric conjures images of petty bureaucrats clogging the entrepreneurial wheels of free enterprise, but there are those from a broadly defined ‘left’ who also object to the authoritarianism they see as implicit in the act of planning.
Planning has become a bit of a dirty word, but actually most human achievements of the last couple of centuries needed a plan. Neil Armstrong didn’t get to the moon because he woke up one morning and felt like it. Sometimes we need plans and this is certainly true in housing. The need for council housing grew from the urban squalor created by precisely the kind of property orgy the government fantasizes about and we don’t need to look back to Dickens to see where it leads: the back garden shanty towns of Ealing and Newham today show what happens when acute housing need, lax planning and speculative landlords converge.
But I have a confessional to make here. I’m a child of ‘The Party’ (for people over a certain age, from a certain background, this can only mean one thing, but I’m referring to the Communist Party). This made for a slightly unusual childhood. In suburban east London, it was hard to explain why we took the ‘Morning Star’ and ‘Soviet Weekly’, only shopped at the Co-Op, always tried to buy British, but had an East German radio, cheered the Chechoslovakian bobsleigh team, hated America and some actors (e.g. James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, John Wayne) were banned from our TV screen. I’m sure my parents were nowhere near the hard end of the Party-line, but we were shaped by a distinctive ideological project, or Plan. (It was recently suggested to me that this attempted cultural hegemony may have extended into support for Morris Dancing, which has a potent place in my memory of childhood, but I’m surpressing it.)
I think even for those not influenced by the CP, a preemptive strike is sometimes needed to deny that when we argue for a more balanced, rational attitude to housing, we’re not saying that everyone should live in an identical State-owned flat, but it is this caricature of council housing that is the shroud often waved by those who oppose it.
The Green Belt will probably become the symbolic touchstone of the debate around current government proposals, with a possible backlash from NIMBY’s and conservationists, but again, this polarised argument misses the point and can also stray into very reactionary territory. The Green Belt was conceived by Ebenezer Howard and other pioneers of Garden Cities (see my post of 22n June) not just as a bulwark against over-development but, like council housing, as part of a vision for how we can live in a more harmonious way. Howard wasn’t a communist (although he did have anarchic influences), but he was a planner. He recognised the brutality, inquity, but also the inefficiency of the free market and sought to tame it. One hundred years on, the beast still roars. There is no need to build on the Green Belt and this is not a ‘crowded island’. There are thousands of acres of unused, derelict land within our urban areas, which are already developed at far lower densities than in other coutries. Take a short trip on the Docklands Light Railway from Canary Wharf to Beckton and you’ll see enough vacant sites to solve the housing shortage of east London and the same is true elsewhere. The problem is not that this land is tied up by planners, but by property developers, disgracefully many of them public agencies and housing associations. Call me an old Tankie, but before scapegoating squatters, let’s criminalise those who sit on empty homes and land and plan how we can put them to good use. As Neil Armstrong said, it isn’t rocket science.