This morning's Today
programme carried a story about this year's Wolfson
Prize, worth £250,000, which will be awarded to the best
proposal for a new garden city that would be "economically viable
Speaking about it, Lord Wolfson said that he was particularly
interested to see innovative proposals for governance of the city,
since, he believed, existing local authorities are normally too
preoccupied with the interests of existing residents rather than of
those who might come and live there in future.
But, as with the original garden cities established a century ago,
a way should be found of enabling existing as well as new residents
to share in the increase in land value that went with the
development of the new city.
Earlier this week, the National Housing Federation launched a new report
on the politics of housing , exploring the reasons why governments
since the 1970s have been much less successful than their
predecessors in ensuring a supply of new homes sufficient to meet
the growth in demand.
The report, commissioned from the Social Market Foundation, asks
to what extent successive governments since 1918 have succeeded in
delivering sufficient new homes and what factors explain their
success - or failure. Both world wars ended with an acute shortage
of housing, and in both cases tackling these shortages was a
priority for post-war governments.
In both periods it was the supply of public housing - led by
councils - which was first to increase; private housing
construction took longer to recover and, in the 1920s, was boosted
by government subsidies. By the 1930s the National government was
overseeing a sharp growth in home ownership, with private builders
delivering over 200,000 homes for sale a year - the only time
private sector output has reached such levels.
In the 1950s all parties promised a big increase in housebuilding,
with the Conservatives' 1955 target of 300,000 homes trumping
Labour's promise of 200,000 made four years earlier. Again it was
public housebuilding that took the lead, not being overtaken by
private construction until 1958.
Yet during the 60s and 70s private construction never topped
200,000 homes a year - council housebuilding programmes above
100,000 homes a year were needed to make sure the post war shortage
was eliminated and supply and demand brought back into balance by
English councils went on supplying more than 100,000 new homes
annually during the 1970s, but by 1982 the combined output of
councils and housing associations had been cut to 50,000 homes a
year, falling below 20,000 by the turn of the century.
Any expectations that the private sector would take up the slack
were soon confounded, with completions rarely topping 150,000
throughout the period. A brief increase in social housebuilding in
the mid 2000s was snuffed out by the banking crisis and subsequent
government austerity policies.
The results are plain to see. I blogged a few weeks
ago about evidence that house prices are beyond the reach of
most first time buyer households in most parts of England. Kate
Barker's analysis, now nearly ten years old, showed convincingly
that it will take an increase in output to at least 230,000 homes
to stem rising house prices and help make home ownership more
affordable. Meanwhile, homelessness has risen and a shortage of
social housing makes it increasingly difficult for councils to
Why have governments since 1980 shied away from effective action
to tackle the housing crisis? The SMF's analysis suggests that - to
put it bluntly - they have decided there aren't enough votes in it.
A shortage of homes for future households is not visible in the
same way that slums and overcrowding once were.
Most people are relatively well-housed, and attitudes to those who
depend on benefits to meet housing costs have hardened. Rising
house prices have - until very recently - been widely regarded as a
good thing, putting the interests of existing owners above those of
households struggling to buy their first home. And councils can be
reluctant to promote new development for fear of opposition from
Which brings us back to the Wolfson prize. A government committed
to reversing the housing crisis would need to be looking for
40-50,000 more homes annually than the 200,000 promised by Labour
and the Coalition, including a very substantial increase in
building by councils and housing associations. And it would need to
have a very clear answer to where exactly the new homes were to be
built. A new generation of garden cities could be a big part of the
answer - if ways can be found to make them more popular and