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‘Green and Pleasant Land?’ The housing crisis and a historical solution

“What sordid, and even terrible, details [modern civilization] surrounds the life of the poor, what a mechanical and empty life she forces on the rich; and how rare a holiday it is for any of us to feel ourselves a part of Nature”

-William Morris

It’s mid-March; this is a student paper. So whether it’s “I hate my flatmates and can’t wait to move out” or “we really should have started looking 3 months ago”, housing is probably never far from the mind. But unlike your eighth tour round a “cosy” 4-bedroom in Elm Grove, our national housing situation need not be bleak and pedestrian.

“A social experiment on a par with the Welfare State.” So said broadcaster Jonathan Meades on the subject of Garden City projects of the early Twentieth Century – aimed at delivering a high quality of life through housing and community development to all people. That vision was taken on by the 1945 Labour government, seeking to build a “New Jerusalem” through its endeavour that communities need not be segregated street-by-street by house prices and private wealth.

But while aspects of the welfare state from the Health Service to national insurance are now success-stories turned everyday normalities, housing remains the unfinished revolution.

This point hardly needs making: how many students reading this believe they’ll ever own their own home?

For our generation, housing has slipped far from the Thatcherite dream of a proud symbol of personal success, and become all too often “that damp and faintly depressing place for which I pay far too much for the privilege of having a roof over my head”. That’s perhaps nothing new for students, but it’s the fact that we don’t seem to have much hope nor prospect of ever bettering it that rankles.

For inspiration, we need look no further than Basil Spence’s designs for our own campus

But in this as so many areas, our level of political discourse is woefully inadequate. Everyone seems to agree that house prices are too high, and that we need to build more to lower prices and satisfy demand. Yet whenever house-building programmes are mentioned, immediately several predictable criticisms arrive:

“Britain’s full! We’re a small island”; “You wouldn’t build on Green Belt, would you?”

So we tend to muddle through, hoping private development satisfies just enough people just enough that we can kick the issue into the long grass for another few years.

The government last month published its Housing white paper – reassuringly titled Fixing Our Broken Housing Market. In it is 106 pages-worth of fairly explicit repudiation of the Coalition’s focus on ownership and treatment of homes as private assets – but, crucially, continuing in the strategy of reductions in planning and regulation. Alternatively titled, “politicians are happy for young people to be consigned to four decades of near-adolescent lifestyle as long as they’re building up a financial asset that makes them less likely to call on the state for support during their pensioner years”, in the words of Hannah Fearn in The Independent.

My old economics teacher put the blame for this squarely at the foot of Channel 4’s Location, Location, Location, in which presenter Kirstie Allsop charmingly and constantly refers to houses as “good assets”. “They’re not assets, Kirstie, they’re homes!”

Thankfully, though, far from the foggy depression of politics, there is real inspiration to be found.

And we need not look far to find it. When Basil Spence designed the beginnings of Sussex campus, he had an acute awareness that he was responsible not just for a cluster of buildings, but shaping a community for years to come.

“The picture I had in mind in my mind’s eye was not an aggressive one of buildings thrusting themselves on the unsuspecting visitor but of brick enlivened by white paint on window frames peeping through trees with a broad rhythm of arched frames, harmonising, I hoped, with the rounded forms of the hills and trees. But the trees would dominate – even in winter without their leaves.” He used in his design materials sympathetic to the location: “a Sussex brick, concrete, knapped flint, copper, timber and white paint.”

Courtesy of Spence’s vision, 2000 words on international trade regulation can be done in slightly less depressing areas of space.

I mention this for 2 reasons (3 if you count bragging about how pretty our campus is):

First, the idea that development and green space are two entirely separate realms of human need is surely a depressing one we’d rather avoid. It cannot be the case that we’re content to live in concrete jungles for 95% of our time at the payoff that we can visit the countryside once in awhile, something that is often only accessible to people with a car and plenty of leisure time.

Introducing the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, the minister of state described the dual function of land: to be used to satisfy human needs, and for its own natural beauty. Spence’s approach reminds us that it is possible to integrate the two – by building into the countryside, not on it.

“There are in reality not only, as is so constantly assumed, two alternatives—town life and country life—but a third alternative, in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country”

Second, that building individual development by individual development at the whim of private companies, simply hoping that relaxing planning regulation and lowering production costs will “fix our broken housing market” is neither plausible nor desirable. “Planning” is now a taboo word in politics, implausibly synonymous with Soviet Communism and ‘70s-style stagflation. That should be the first change in our attitudes: communities must be able to take responsibility for planning their own social housing in ways that optimise affordability and quality of life.

Building in the early post-war period was consciously aware that creating new houses was not just an itemized programme of individual house units, but designing communities in which people will live for years to come, building New Towns and planning initiatives to that end.

That effort was developing on an earlier idea, the Garden City.

Ebenezer Howard, founding father of Letchworth, the first Garden City, argued that the modern consensus (then as now, I would suggest) made it “quite impossible for working people to live in the country, and yet be engaged in pursuits other than agricultural, as though crowded unhealthy cities were the last word of economic science…There are in reality not only, as is so constantly assumed, two alternatives—town life and country life—but a third alternative, in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination”.

The great irony here is that many of the utopian New Towns are now themselves depressing hunks of concrete lacking the sense of community they were designed for, while Garden Cities have become too often seas of Tory-blue suburban bliss with house prices even Sajid Javid can’t spin as “affordable”.

The ideal, then, of building affordable, good quality housing available to everyone regardless of income – and in so doing to unite our communities beyond background-driven segregation, remains elusive.

But that is a failure not of our imagination in the past, but our commitment to that kind of vision in the present. In the face of population worries and price rises, it is more important than ever to reframe the way we think about planning and national development – but in so doing we ought not to forget that affordability and quality should never be a binary choice.

We should all be able to take pride in our environments, as embodiments of our communities. In this individualised and increasingly lonely society, it is more important than ever to re-learn Morris’s lesson that “ the true secret of happiness lies in the taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life”.

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2 Comments

  1. This is a really good article, connecting lots of dots and clearly expressed, well written and thoughtful ….. I´ve shared it on facebook because I think it will interest people even outside Sussex…. thank you for this, and well done

    Reply
  2. Next day, and already four people have picked up the story from my fb wall…. sign of good journalism!

    Reply

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