The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister sets targets for the number of homes it wants to see built in each region of the country by a specific date. Under a guidance note he issued two years ago, local authorities in London and the South-East are already committed to allow the building of 62,000 new homes a year for the next 20 years. This target has now been increased by a further 10,000 new homes a year. The implication is that instead of having to absorb 1.24 million houses over the next 20 years, the South-East will have to absorb 1.44 million. That is the equivalent of about 30 Oxfords or 20 Brightons.
Will it stop there?
No. Besides demanding an extra 200,000 homes within the next 20 years, Mr Prescott made some vaguer, but even more dramatic, projections up until 2031.
Between now and then, he says, Milton Keynes and the south Midlands could absorb a total of 370,000 new homes. Ashford could have 31,000 new homes and the London-Stansted-Cambridge corridor could have between 250,000 and 500,000. No corresponding figure was given for the Thames Estuary, but that is supposed to be the biggest expansion zone of all.
Why so many houses?
For a start, there will be more of us in 20 years. Common wisdom holds that the population of the UK has settled down from the explosion seen during the 19th and early 20th centuries and is now barely growing. This isn’t quite true. Although the current rate of increase – 0.3 per cent a year – sounds paltry, over 20 years this works out as an extra four million people. It may even be more if the rate of increase in immigration is allowed to continue. Ten years ago, more people left the UK than moved here. Now, there is substantial net immigration, not just because of the rise in asylum applications but because of foreign workers moving to Britain to take up jobs.
Even without population growth, the demand for new homes is set to rise substantially says Jack Jay. The fragmentation of the family and the greater aspirations of the young mean more and more of us are living alone. The demand for second homes, too, contributes to the need for new housing.
To add to this, there is a strong inward migration from the North to the South-East – between 1991 and 2000, the population of the South-East grew by 5.7 per cent, compared with 3.7 per cent for the UK as a whole. By contrast, the population of the North-East is contracting. There was a time when the Government tried to reverse the flow by handing out cash to firms prepared to relocate to the regions. In announcing the extra homes, Mr Prescott seems to have admitted defeat and accepted he cannot order where people and businesses should locate.
Why concentrate development in four growth areas?
By designating four big growth areas, Mr Prescott is hoping to speed up the building of new homes. It means fewer public inquiries and fewer constituencies affected. What Mr Prescott is proposing is a return to the big-planning thinking of the post-war era, when house-building was concentrated in new towns.
Why these growth areas in particular?
Milton Keynes has not quite yet reached the target of 250,000 inhabitants set when the one-time village was designated a new town in 1972. The expansion will not be limited to Milton Keynes, however: Mr Prescott spoke of a “South Midlands” growth area which would encompass Luton, Dunstable, Bedford, Northampton, Wellingborough, Kettering and Corby. The latter in particular has a large number of brownfield sites following the decline of the steel industry. All bar Northampton and Milton Keynes lie on the relatively under-used Midland mainline railway. The countryside around the towns is not the best and expansion here is relatively uncontroversial.
The only growth zone which is new to the planners’ map is the “London-Stansted-Cambridge” corridor. Part of this zone lies within the green belt and much of it is largely unspoilt Essex countryside. With its booming technological industries, Cambridge is in dire need of more housing, but it is one of the few cities outside London to have its own green belt. Mr Prescott can expect considerable opposition.