The Times December 12 2003
 
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,174-928672,00.html
 

Britain for sale: apply Gordon Brown and Co

Simon Jenkins

Before the last election, Tony Blair signed a letter to The Times. It was rapturous. It spoke of his belief in the "rich personality and character" of the English countryside. The countryside, he asserted, was close to his heart. He pledged himself to pay "thoughtful and scrupulous attention to its charm". The letter was a surprise from a politician whose rural recourse was normally to French vineyards and Tuscan olive groves. But it was an election year.

This week came the U-turn. A report commissioned by Gordon Brown as part of his Pre-Budget Report totally disregarded his boss's Virgilian elegiac. The historic role of the countryside "to feed the nation" was at an end. To Mr Brown its new role is to house the nation. Period.

The countryside matters. It matters more than Treasury borrowing limits or overspending. It matters more than tinkering with the health service and scheming over European voting rights. Such things are made by men and by men can be unmade. The countryside is for ever -- or for never. Fields and valleys, woods and hills once lost to building are gone.

The proposals set out by the Treasury pose a greater threat to rural Britain than any act of government since the Second World War. Written by an economist, Kate Barker, they treat the countryside as inert raw material for the building industry. They parrot almost word for word the views of the big private housebuilders and the House Builders Federation (HBF), whose lobbyists have long had Downing Street by the throat. Ms Barker was hired by the Chancellor to "launder" their case. She has done them proud.

I have learnt that in this game there is no virtue in pleading Keats or Ruskin, let alone the glories of English nature. These philistines live in London and holiday abroad. We do better to confront them on their own ground, the concrete acres of the mind colonised by dismal science.

Ms Barker's central thesis is that Britain's lack of new housebuilding "constrains economic growth". Her evidence is that Britons pay more for houses than other Europeans, in total £8 billions more. Young couples seeking home-ownership must pay on average £32,000 more than their European counterparts. This is a scandal, suggests the Euro-egalitarian Ms Barker.

The argument is absurd. House price inflation has been government policy for more than a quarter century of mortgage-interest subsidy. The billions spent on housing tax relief could have gone on "economic growth", but the Treasury decided otherwise. It subsidised a lifestyle choice, that Britons could occupy domestic property at roughly half the density of other Europeans. It encouraged them to use houses as vehicles of personal saving. This inflation has been further reinforced by the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, of which Ms Barker is a member, holding interest rates at an all-time low. I repeat, high house prices are public policy.

Anyway, what is wrong? High prices indicate economic success. British growth has far outstripped Europe's this past decade. Perhaps this is due to house prices. Perhaps it is due to the boom in inward investment attracted by Britain's lifestyle, conserved countryside and towns, which Ms Barker wants to wreck.

She tells the Chancellor that Britain "needs" to build 2.5 million more houses to satisfy an excess of "demand" over supply. Demand is fixed by so-called new households forming at more than 200,000 a year, a figure meticulously broken down by region. This is daft. People cannot be matched to geographical units in this way. Britain is not a Soviet paradise, where migration, underoccupancy and second homes were banned. Everyone "wants" a better house. The demand for Belgravia mansions and Cotswold manors is infinite. Is she really an economist?

Demand for housing shifts in relation to price. Average English house prices are well above the European norm, but then prices in the North are well below the British norm. Whole neighbourhoods stand empty as a result of previous governments who likewise tried to "build for Britain", ruining the leisure potential of once lovely counties such as Staffordshire and Durham.

But surely higher property prices should rectify the nation's wasteful use of its housing stock. More important, there are now signs that high prices in the South East are achieving what decades of regional policy has denied. They are driving employment northwards.

As a report this week from Demos and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors indicates, cities such as Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds are becoming economic magnets. Encouraging economic activity to relocate to the North is a far more efficient use of Britain's social infrastructure than spreading new settlement across the South. For the Treasury now to reverse this regional drift by unleashing a tide of cheap housing in the "high-demand" South beggars belief. It is not "joined-up", it is dumb.

Ms Barker bulldozes on. She has been asked to "tackle market failure" and must come up with "tough and credible measures, including intervention, where local authorities are not delivering housing numbers in high-demand areas". The enemy, of course, is that old bugbear of the HBF, local planning.

The argument is rubbish. Last year 123,000 homes were built for sale in England, the same average as for the past 25 years. There has been an apparent collapse in public house-building since the 1970s, but these figures were artificial. Most "new" council properties replaced destroyed terraces and tens of thousands of these properties lie empty. The real challenge is to repair them. But they are of no interest to the housebuilding lobby or to Ms Barker as they are in inner cities, not high-demand countryside. Follow the money. This whole debate is about private sector building in the rural South East.

There is not a scrap of evidence for Ms Barker's claim that some mass economic thrombosis is caused by an evil army of green wellies. The store of undeveloped land held by property speculators has risen by 30 per cent since Labour came to power and began hinting at relaxing greenbelts. The number of houses that could be built on it is a third of a million units a year, more than enough to meet Ms Barker's fictitious "needs". Three quarters of new house applications are approved on the nod. It is not planning that holds back private housebuilding, but land-bank managers awaiting higher prices.

If the housebuilders wanted cheaper homes they would stop building at a land-hungry 25 units per hectare and build instead at 50 units, common on the Continent. Britain's "sprawl" housing is costly in infrastructure and draws ever more cars on to the roads. It is a planning outrage. Yet the Government and lobbyists want more of it. The Times could report the bid by Croudace to develop former farmland outside Basingstoke as "an uphill struggle ... despite growing fears of an acute housing shortage", as if the builder were Mother Teresa and countryside guardians were sons of Satan.

The Government is now the target of lobbying to breach greenbelt protection and end the postwar presumption against building on farmland. The race is against the advent of new "countryside management agreements" presaged by Common Agricultural Policy reform, which might bring rural protection in their train. A similar campaign in the 1980s saw Nicholas Ridley allow petrol stations and hypermarkets to go wherever developers wanted them. Now the garages are empty and many of the hypermarkets cram the roads or are sold to cut-price retailers.

The purpose of this campaign is to remove all local planning discretion. Ms Barker is outraged that "councils pay no penalty for failing to reach house-building targets set for them". She appears unaware that it was the Treasury that removed this penalty by ending local business rates. Why voters should enjoy no say over the evolution of their landscape is not explained. This is crypto-Leninism.

Every poll indicates that Mr Blair was right those years ago to plead the countryside cause. The countryside is rated above every other aspect of Britain's quality of life; above the monarchy, above even sport. Of course people "want" better houses. But Britons are better housed than any other comparable nation. What they do want is something only government can deliver, the long-term protection of their landscape.

Refashioning rural Britain as an outlet for public pleasure is a challenge to every organ of government. Britain has half the land area per head of France or Germany. Its open spaces are desperately vulnerable. At very least it should be spared this blatant sell-out to commercialism.