Lord Wolfson: Failure to turn around the UK's housing market would be a betrayal - and foolish, too

Posted On: 
4th April 2019

Politicians need courage and ambition to ensure a new generation of Garden Cities are actually built, writes Lord Wolfson

“Each new town must be built to be beautiful, convenient and with an abundance of green space”
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In 2014, the Wolfson Economics Prize invited fresh thinking on how a new Garden City could be delivered that is visionary, economically viable and popular. The purpose was simple – to provide the thinking that is needed to solve Britain’s housing crisis. We wanted to find a way to let people live in the homes they would choose, in the places they most want to live, work and raise their families.

We received an astonishing 279 ideas, of which we shortlisted five finalists. The winner, an idea by the urban designer David Rudlin to double the size of 40 towns and cities, was quite brilliant. I felt sure we had unearthed policy proposals that could begin to address this country’s longstanding undersupply of new homes, of the sort that are popular with the public and in the places where they want to live. Indeed, the polling we commissioned at the time suggested most people would welcome new garden cities – the silent majority are not as Nimbyist as their political representatives often presume.

So you can imagine my heartfelt disappointment when, within hours of the winning entry being announced, the then Department for Communities and Local Government rejected these new ideas outright. The proposals were labelled as “urban sprawl”, from which the country would be protected – this is despite the same government promising a couple of years earlier to “think big” on garden cities. It was no coincidence that a general election was taking place nine months later, in May 2015.

This closed-minded approach to dealing with the country’s housing crisis is all too familiar. It has contributed to an inexorable march towards an affordability crisis in housing – a crisis whose economic effect is to transfer wealth from young to old, poor to rich, north to south. A crisis resulting from a lack of ambition.

Although some progress has been made by this Government in developing garden communities, these developments are currently too small and their number too few to have a significant impact on housing numbers. The Government’s garden communities programme aims to deliver just 200,000 homes by 2050. In contrast, David Rudlin’s winning entry from 2014 set out plans to provide homes for 150,000 extra people in as many as 40 towns and cities across the UK.

London’s strategy for dealing with the lack of homes is equally deficient. It sets a target of building 66,000 new homes per year but does not identify enough land for them to be built on: too many of the sites where people actually want to live have been closed off. I fear that London’s plight reflects an all too common theme – the homes we need sacrificed at the altar of short-term political gain. It is another chapter in the tragedy of British home building. Our planning system is simply not delivering enough homes but our leaders dare not change the status quo. Inertia slowly robs the next generation of the homes it deserves.

Everyone knows the current system does not work. Politicians say they want change, but nothing happens. Something is missing. In a word: courage. Courage to act in the interests of those who do not yet have a voice – the next generation. Failure to turn around the UK’s housing market would not only be a betrayal, it would be foolish. That generation is gaining its voice and politicians will not be able to ignore it for too much longer.

Tomorrow’s Places, a new Policy Exchange report that builds on the vision of the 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize, advocates the type of ambition policy makers should be aiming for. It argues that 15 new towns should be built in the commuter belt that circles London, communities built along the transport routes that flow out of London. The think tank’s proposals are that each new town is built to be beautiful, convenient and with an abundance of green space.

It is simple, bold and achievable – exactly the type of idea we need if we are to allow the next generation to have the homes they deserve.

Lord Wolfson of Aspley Guise is a Conservative peer, chief executive of Next and founder of the Wolfson Prize