We must think of new ways to build homes without resorting to hideous urban sprawl

What can be done about the housing shortage afflicting Britain? One proposed solution is the building of new towns, which gets another airing in yesterday’s Observer.

We have been here before. You may remember that John Prescott, the former deputy Prime Minister, once was in charge of a proposal to build several new towns in the Southeast of England (where the shortage of housing was and remains the most acute). Each one was supposed to be the size of Horsham, and several sites were mentioned, including Christ’s Hospital and Ford, both of which have relatively little used railway stations. Naturally many people living in the Southeast were less than enthusiastic about John Prescott “concreting over the countryside.”

Given that all planning applications move at a snail’s pace (Consider Crossrail, which I first heard mentioned twenty-five years ago, and which still has not been completed) the concreting over of large portions of Sussex may happen in a decade or two. Unless the Nimbys stop it.

But the fact remains that we do need more housing, and that housing needs to be in London and the Home Counties. The toll exacted by unaffordable housing is high: if we believe in family life, that implies a commitment to decent housing for all. If young people today are ever to be able to own their own homes, or find something affordable to rent, then something needs to be done. And that something is pretty obvious: we need to relax the planning laws and make more land available for building. That is not the same as concreting over the countryside – there have to be safeguards. And we also have to build at greater density; and given that our public transport system is expensive and groaning at full capacity, we need to build in places which are close to where people work.

There have been useful changes to planning laws recently, such as the requirement that all new developments need to provide for a percentage of social housing too. It is also comforting to see some of the brownfield sites in the capital being developed at last. The view through the window of any train between Clapham Junction and Waterloo or Victoria tells you this. There are far more blocks of flats than there were previously, and the huge site occupied by Battersea Power Station is being developed at last. (How many decades did that take?) But this is just the beginning. Every station in the land, virtually, has a car park next to it. Why can’t these car parks be turning into blocks of flats with car parks underneath them? What about building flats on top of supermarkets? Why not build flats on top of railway tracks? Is it because the British hate living in flats? If that is the case, we need to start falling in love with flats, as the continentals have done.

Talking of the continent, we have been fortunate to avoid the hideous urban sprawl that surrounds most large cities in Italy, where the housing shortage is even more acute than it is here. There are few places more hideous than la periferia di Roma, l’hinterland di Milano, or la cintura di Napoli. But we do not have to go down that path. If we could only have a new airport on the Isle of Grain or a hugely expanded one at Stansted, with the appropriate rail links, then we could close Heathrow and have the world’s biggest brownfield site at our disposal. But this has to be done relatively swiftly. We can’t wait as long for the new airport as we did for Crossrail. Which brings us back to the fundamental point: for the sake of the people and their needs – reform the planning laws!