Drive down any main route through East Anglia – the A11, A12, A14, A140, A10 – and you’ll notice it. You’ll see the same insidious effect along any A road in England’s once green and pleasant South-east. Where there were fields there are now houses. What were once by-passes have become the boundary fences marking the edge of town.
Britain, we are constantly being told by the xenophobes who want to halt migration, is full. And looking at the ugly swelling of our lovely market towns, you’d easily believe it.
In 50 years, the UK population has risen by 19.2 per cent. World population, meanwhile, has gone up by 166.4pc. We’ve gone from being the world’s ninth biggest country, with 1.8pc of global population, to the 21st, with just 0.9pc. In relative terms we’re shrinking, not filling up.
Of course, our land isn’t relative, it’s absolute. And absolutely limited. Which is why we need to guard and preserve it carefully. Not by slamming the doors shut at every port, but by applying some long overdue intelligence to our planning and property habits.
It’s a simple truth of world economics that we could easily feed and clothe even a global population that has rocketed past seven billion if some people didn’t take a lot more than their share. And yes, I’m afraid that does mean us. Many of us, anyway. Those who own the land, and the houses, and the cars that clog up those arterial roads.
It’s also true – it’s the same simple truth, really – that there’d be plenty of room for all in Britain if some folk didn’t hog more than their share.
And we wouldn’t have to keep concreting and tarmacking over good farmland, either. A habit which contributes enormously to our flooding troubles.
Consider these two recent headlines, one from the front page of London’s evening newspaper, the other from a national paper’s website:
- “Property Prices Soar in Suburbs”
- and “Tens of thousands of London homes deemed long-term vacant”.
How are these stories related?
The Evening Standard splash claimed the capital was suffering a “desperate housing shortage”, forcing people away from the city centre.
It said: “The average home’s value shot up by £10,683 between November and December… to a fresh peak of £514,097.”
Blimey. Wish I could earn 10 grand in a month. On the other hand, half a million for an average home? How can anyone afford that?
It went on: “The biggest year-on-year increase was in Barking and Dagenham, where the average home rose 15.3pc in a year to £309,760 – leaving London without a single borough where house prices are below £300,000.”
I wonder how much the Dagenham house my dad grew up in – a basic two-bed terraced with a narrow garden – would fetch now. And how any ordinary East-Ender can afford to live in what has long been one of London’s most deprived areas.
Now let’s look at that story from The Guardian. It revealed: “Tens of thousands of London homes have been left uninhabited for so long they are considered ‘long-term vacant’, with more than 1,100 empty for over a decade.”
More than 22,000 homes in the capital had been left empty by their owners for more than six months. Which might not be enough, in a city of eight million, to make a huge difference to property prices. But it’s still shocking in a city where so many are struggling – and not a few of them failing – to put a roof over their heads.
Helen Williams, of the charity Empty Homes, says: “With so many people priced out of decent housing across London, it makes sense to make the most of existing properties, as well as build new homes, to address the capital’s housing needs.”
More to the point, she adds: “We’d like to see more long-term empty properties across England bought by councils and charities to create new homes that are affordable to people on low to moderate incomes.”
Council housing. Now there’s a good idea. Not one much in favour, sadly, with a government committed to selling off what homes still remain in council hands. And which also, incidentally, intends to do away with the Freedom of Information Act, under which we were able to learn these facts.
Legal & General boss Nigel Wilson believes much of the problem is because “we are obsessed with owning homes”. The Englishman’s home is his castle – while most of Europe is happy living in flats.
Wilson says: “House price inflation isn’t good for society. Rental will help social mobility right across the country.”
Especially if rents are, as he puts it, competitive. Or, as I’d say, reasonable.
Meanwhile those average-home folk who can’t afford London prices are being squeezed out into new market-town suburbs all along our main roads and railway lines. So the overheating of London becomes a problem for our once-rural communities and market towns too.