Groundhog Day Revisited

Age is a funny old thing. My grown-up children can’t quite imagine that a world once existed which had only three TV channels, no mobile phones, and (horror-of-horrors), no internet. Yet somehow it did, and, amazingly, we of a certain age somehow managed to survive it. I’m still not sure how we contrived to find anything out without Google, but perhaps that’s why door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen existed back then. I recall being taught that the Dark Ages ended in the 14th century, but my kids think it ran on to at least 1993, and possibly quite a bit later. I do have the small pleasure of knowing that in thirty years’ time, their own offspring will be bamboozled by the availability of ‘only’ 1,000 TV channels,

the concept of a telephone, and the idea of using a computer to access something called the internet. They will almost certainly have a chip embedded somewhere that will allow them to consume vast quantities of infinitely short videos which will be all that their micro-attention spans can take.

I’m not entirely sure that age automatically conveys wisdom, but it certainly allows you to reflect more on things you see in the news. And, assuming your memory isn’t playing tricks on you, you can feel pretty confident that you’ve seen and heard it all before. Listening to Sir Keir Starmer’s recent announcement about how Labour plans to tackle the country’s housing crisis and build 300,000 homes per year was a case in point. It involved the Opposition leader confessing to being a YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard), and promising to streamline the planning system, override local planning objections, and build some new towns somewhere. Which is where the déjà vu feeling started to creep up on me, because I’ve heard it all several times before, and from politicians of every party.

The reason we’ve had a housing crisis for as long as most people can remember is because it’s impossible to solve without upsetting people. And most politicians are predisposed not to want to upset people for obvious reasons, even though many of them somehow manage very successfully to do quite the opposite. So, when faced with an issue that’s both hugely important and not easy to fix, politicians have a tendency to kick the can down the road. They’re not allowed to ignore the problem and hope it goes away, because that would be irresponsible. But equally they won’t actually change anything meaningful because it upsets voters and gives the Opposition something to beat them up with. Which isn’t something you’d want to do when the next general election is only four years away, tops. To be fair, you might witness some early-term exuberance from the odd fresh-faced housing minister still hopeful that they will be the one to make a difference. Robert Jenrick was a case in point; his ill-fated attempted to fix the planning system a couple of years ago resulted in a lost by-election, a back-bench revolt, and his untimely departure from government. But he’s not alone; the housing portfolio is to politicians what appearing in The Bill is to the acting profession, and we’ve had about a dozen housing ministers in as many years. So, rather cynically, we end up with a plate spinning exercise where success can be counted as reaching the next election with the plate still intact and everyone thinking that a solution is around the corner and it’s all still work-in-progress. Or maybe it’s me who’s being cynical (in my old age).

So, why is housing such a difficult nut to crack? Let’s consider the scale of the problem. Both main political parties agree that we need to be building 300,000 new homes each year. And if you say it quickly, that number can wash over you without really resonating. But if I told you that there are a total of 275,000 homes in Oxfordshire, then you’ll start to appreciate that building a small county’s worth of homes each year is no small task. And you may well also start to wonder where exactly these new counties are going to fit. After all, there’s not a lot of empty space on the map, and you can’t just plonk 300,000 new homes in the middle of nowhere and expect people to want to live there.

Even if you created brand new towns, they still need to go somewhere and be connected to everywhere else.

Back in the day we used to have a new town building programme. The New Towns Act 1946 reflected the need for post-war reconstruction but also acknowledged that simply adding to London’s sprawl wasn’t the answer. Instead we saw a total of 27 new towns emerge, including the likes of Stevenage, Crawley, Bracknell, Hemel Hempstead, Peterlee, and Runcorn. Milton Keynes was one of the later creations and went on to become the largest with some 117,000 households today. England’s biggest new town since Milton Keynes is Northstowe, near Cambridge. Here around 1,200 homes have been built out of a planned 10,000, although some six years after the first house was built, it still has no shop, pub, doctor’s surgery, or café. It does have a post box however, which one assumes will be the hub of all social activity until a café eventually turns up. Despite its growing pains, Northstowe serves to underline the scale of the challenge. The village/town is on a 20-year journey to reach its 10,000th home, yet we need the equivalent of 30 Northstowes to be built every year if we’re to meet the housing target. And that’s no mean feat, even if you had lots of places to put them all; places where nobody minded you building a new town.

The simple truth is that everyone would quite like the housing crisis to be solved, but no one wants any houses built anywhere near them. Or in the precious green belt, although Starmer has come up with a novel name for green belt land that abuts a built-up area – he calls it the grey belt. Presumably he’s thinking people won’t mind quite so much if we build on green belt land that’s called grey belt, and he may well be right. But let’s be honest – we are all NIMBYs at heart, and as many a local MP has found out, people get well and truly exercised if you try and build pretty much anything, anywhere.

It means we simply end up in another Groundhog Day. Once again, we have a load of pre-election promises being made by politicians that offer a glimmer of hope that, for some reason, their party will be able to do what all their predecessors have failed to do. And as long as their words don’t become actions, they’re on pretty safe ground. It’s only when implementation comes around that the public start getting twitchy, which is when the whole sorry cycle repeats itself again.

Well, that all sounds rather gloomy, doesn’t it? So, what’s the solution? In my view it’s relatively simple, even if it’s not very easy.

When you need to make difficult decisions, particularly when you risk alienating some of the voting population, then party politics usually gets in the way. Politicians’ thoughts turn to the polling booth rather than solving the problem at hand, with predictable outcomes. The other big issue with the housing crisis is that you can’t solve it within a single parliamentary term. Four years simply isn’t long enough; it will have to be a 10-20 year plan, minimum. So my suggestion for knotty problems such as the housing crisis is that we take them out of the political agenda and establish a cross-party group that will be responsible for recommending a solution and then implementing it. In this way, the housing agenda is removed from the short-term party politicking that sees nothing change, and instead becomes a long-term solution that all parties have signed up to, with an agreement that the implementation does not get derailed, irrespective of any change of government.

Is it the perfect solution? No. Will it be easy to get everyone on board and to work out the terms of engagement. Same answer. Will some members of the public be completely outraged with whatever is proposed? Ditto. But then if solving the housing crisis was a walk in the park, we’d have done it by now. Ultimately, we need to find a solution that doesn’t rely on a vague hope that the next bunch of ministers will somehow magic up a palatable solution, because frankly that’s cloud cuckoo land. As luck would have it, there are some bright people working in Westminster. Let’s task the best of them with coming up with the optimum solution with the shackles off and see where it takes us. It certainly can’t be any less productive than what we’ve seen up to now, or what we’re likely to see tomorrow.