Sunday, 31 October 2010

Learning from Paris.....

Behind the unfortunate language used by Boris Johnson, there is a serious debate being waged about the Coalition policy on housing. Whilst the debate specifically stems from the proposed cuts to housing benefit, the argument draws out interesting questions on what we want our cities to look like.

In cities with high rents such as London, the danger is that the poor could be pushed to the outer suburbs and beyond, creating a 'doughnut-effect'. London is rightfuly proud of its mixed-communities, which have developed more through chance than direct intervention, and it would be a mistake to ignore the role they play in social cohesion and economic diversity. Labour MP Chris Bryant is cleverly evoking the dystopian image of the 'banlieue' in Paris to warn against segregation. Reference is also being made to the block-booking of B&Bs in Hastings as a way for London councils to rid themselves of unwanted residents.

As house prices show, London operates in some-what of a bubble and it is wrong to have a standard cap on housing benefit across the country that ignores this anomaly. Whilst housing benefit has got out of hand, much to the benefit of private landlords, it serves a purpose and must support mixed communities. Areas in Hackney and Islington have gentrified over the years precisely because they are mixed communities and poorer residents should not suffer from the associated price rises. Boris has tried to make these points, but unfortunately his argument has been derailed by unhelpful language.

The argument about housing benefit cannot be decoupled from issues surrounding the ever-worsening housing shortage. House building is at a record low and with schemes on hold and significant applications being refused in light of the removal of targets, the future looks no brighter. The Coalition harks on about reforming the planning system, but the New Homes Bonus is not due until April 2011. Plus, where is the evidence that localism will change the mind-set of local Councillors who often campaign on a stance of no development? If growth is to be accepted in key areas of the country, the benefits must be better articulated.

A complete reform of the Green Belt is required to increase land supply and stimulate house-building. I am not advocating endless sprawl that is dominated by road transport, but calling for a public transport based spatial planning. Unfortunately in the rush towards localism, a gap in strategic planning has been left which we may come to regret.

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