George Monbiot writes in today’s Guardian about the plight of the very poor in Britain and how badly they are served by our social housing. It’s a long piece, just over 1200 words, and he spends almost the whole piece exploring the plight of some desperate families, who Shelter seem to have put him in touch with.
Then suddenly, at the end of the article, without so much as an argued link, he switches into conclusion mode: I find myself, to my intense discomfort, supporting the preposterous housing target (i.e. to build 3 million new homes by 2020). There is a legitimate debate to be had about where and how these homes are built. However - though it hooks in my green guts to admit it - built they must be.
It’s a pity he didn’t spend a little longer analysing his green guts because he could, and should, have come to a very different conclusion. Britain most definitely does not need 3 million new homes in the next twelve years, especially if they are all to be one- and two-bedroom flats. Bad as the plight is of his case studies, Wendy Castle, Jacqueline Pennant and the Afghani asylum seekers Aisha and Abdul Omarzaiy, the situation is not going to be improved by a huge housebuilding programme. The flats that they live in will still be there in 2020 and the chances are that they will still be filled with either the same families or ones just like them.
Our borders are porous and however cramped the housing is in Kensington & Chelsea, it’s still a toehold in London. The bottom end of our social housing market represents a result if you come from Afghanistan.
What will happen if we build 3 million new homes? In an open Britain, they will fill up with approximately 10 million new people. And as they will mostly be flats, rather than family homes, the amount of overcrowding will continue much as before.
If we really wanted to tackle the overcrowding issue, we would do better to start replacing flats with larger houses, so that social renters had somewhere to go. Just building new homes in vast numbers is now scarcely more justifiable now than building a new runway at Heathrow.