I must admit to being a secret fan of Grand Designs.
It puts forward an idea that is a very attractive pipe dream: the creation of a dream home, and as the subject of each programme meets the challenge of creating a home that expresses something of themselves, it allows the rest of us the fantasy that maybe, just maybe, we could do the same.
Last night I watched the programme that showed the presenter, Kevin McLeod's favourite design. It was, as is often the way with the designs selected by the programme to be filmed, highly eco-friendly. It was, unusually, built in a patch of woodland in southern England. How unusual that was was then made clear: no permissions are ever normally given in the UK to allow such construction. It was only because the builder was a Woodman who needed to be in the wood, for the sake of his livelihood, that any permission was allowed, but that he could not sell the house on, once built, and should he sell the woodland, from which he derived his living, he must demolish the house. It meant, of course that he could not borrow any money to fund the project, since the building had no market value. I must say this does offend my idea of rights to property, but the builder accepted the stipulation- and built it from his own resources.
To me, this brought home just how draconian the planning regulations are in Britain. As Marcus Brigstocke pointed out in his Radio Programme As safe as Houses , the fact is that the UK has an extremely small area devoted to housing- less than 7%. As you fly over the country, even the supposedly crowded South East England, the overwhelming prospect is not of a concrete jungle, but of how green the country is. As the population has grown, however, the availability of housing has fallen. Despite the headline grabbing large scale house programmes that were particularly proposed by the government in the past few years, relatively little is being built.
The Town & Country Planning Act of 1947 essentially nationalised the planning process, and like many other acts passed by the Attlee government, it is showing its age. Yet, unlike most other economic legislation, such as the nationalisation of coal, steel, the Bank of England, health care and so on, the planning regime has not been liberalised. In fact if anything the planning regime has grown ever tighter.
The result is that the market can not respond to the excess of demand over supply. It is not just a function of environmental impact- as the Grand Designs build shows, construction these days can indeed be exceptionally light on the ground. The problem is that the current regime is totally inflexible. The vested interests that Kevin Cahill points out in his book, "Who owns Britain?" have lost very little of their influence- and this influence is pervasive in the Green movement. A Land Tax might not only address the vexed issue of land use, but also reveal who owns the large unbuilt areas of rural Britain. This information is not public, as the result of a loophole in the law establishing the land registry.
The UK now faces a housing crisis: the cost of home ownership is beyond the means of an increasing number of Britons. Although house prices may now stall, as the result of the instability in the credit market and the prospect of recession, the structural imbalance will remain. The simplistic attacks that the right wing press have made on immigration being the root of this housing shortage conveniently ignores that fact that the Poles have brought with them many with the skills lacking in the domestic labour force: plumbing, not least. It also ignores that fact that the increasing demand is a function of far reaching social changes which have dramatically increased the number of people leaving alone.
Attempts to reduce demand will fail and can not solve the housing crisis. Only increasing supply can make a long term difference. However, this is not the same as "concreting over the South of England" that is the perennial warning of NIMBYs. In fact the easing of supply could be brought about with fairly small changes in land use- even a 1% increase in the land available for housing would dramatically alter the situation. At a time when rural life is declining: shops and pubs closing etc., the arrival of new residents in new houses could help to keep schools, pubs and other services open.
Those that refuse to allow any building are killing rural life in this country.
Yet politicians have found it easy simply to go with the NIMBYs.
The right position is to relax the draconian ban on new housing in the countryside.
I too have a grand design in mind. A wooden house inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, set in a clearing overlooking the sea. It will also be a low environmental impact building, using the best of insulation and wood pellet heating.
However I will build it in Estonia- a place where the market works far more sensibly and where NIMBYs do not -always- have the last word..