They say an Englishman’s home is his castle. Or, if not a castle, at least a neat semi-detached house with a trimmed lawn and a wooden fence to keep out the rest of the world.
It seems, however, that this idyllic picture will be enjoyed by fewer and fewer of us over the coming decades. You see, it’s estimated that a quarter of a million little ‘castles’ need to be built every year to cope with the housing demands of a rising population. The problem is, only two-fifths of that number are currently being constructed.
A barn-storming solution
So what is the Government proposing to do about it? Well, one suggestion from Eric Pickles is to turn every tumbledown barn in the countryside into an executive-style home. Another idea championed by Nick Clegg is to build new garden cities, particularly in the south-east where demand is highest.
The trouble with these proposals is that each development requires new roads and new pipework that carve up the countryside – and that spurs the NIMBYs into action.
Already, there’s fierce opposition to the idea of garden cities from those living in pretty towns in the south-east, afraid that their green and pleasant land will be turned to concrete.
Brownfield site development is the new green
One potential solution is to go brown, not green. England’s towns and cities are chock-full of places perfect for brownfield site development. In fact, the Department for Communities and Local Government’s own figures show that there’s enough urban developed land available to build 1.5 million new homes!
What’s more, you could argue that these old office blocks and former factories are just the type of bricks and mortar that we need: large, flexible buildings that can be easily split into the one and two bedroom apartments that the younger generation are crying out for.
After all, what use is a glut of leafy, four-bed villas to the young professionals struggling to reach the bottom rung of the housing ladder?
On the face of it, brownfield development seems to have it all. Not only could it provide a wealth of starter homes, it reduces the need to eat into the green belt, plus it helps to cut car use. What’s more, because the land has been previously developed, much of the key infrastructure is already in place.
So why aren’t house builders embracing the idea?
Because developers love building to a formula. With a lovely piece of open land, they can build to their usual, tried-and-tested, cost-efficient blueprint. Converting old office blocks, on the other hand, requires a tricky, bespoke build every time – and that doesn’t sit well with the aim of maximising profit.
So if the major house builders won’t tackle brownfield conversions, what about the people who already own the buildings? Can’t they be persuaded to redevelop? Yes, if we make it uneconomic to leave those buildings vacant. If we follow Denmark’s example and charge higher business rates on these sites, then property owners will be super-keen to build.
Or, if not, they’ll soon sell to someone who is!