By George Monbiot. Published in Red Pepper, some time in 1997
In no respect are we more unequal, and in no respect is our inequality more catastrophic than in our access to development. There’s little doubt about the kinds of development we need in Britain: around 150,000 people are, by the strictest definition, homeless, and hundreds of thousands of others are desperately under-housed. Every year, 100,000 new affordable homes are needed, and only 35,000 get built. Thirty thousand elderly people die each winter as a direct consequence of our failure to address the housing crisis.
Yet Britain is hardly lacking in development. Every city bristles with new office blocks and superstores. Land that’s desperately needed for inclusive, affordable housing is swallowed up by “exclusive developments” of luxury homes. Money which could have been used to help address the housing crisis has instead been earmarked to build a monument – the Dome of Doom – whose function even its promoters have failed to explain. While development is clearly serving the developers very well, it is making the lives of the dispossessed ever more miserable: generating traffic, destroying jobs, excluding the poor from public spaces.
It’s not hard to see why this is happening. Over the last 20 years there has been a progressive diminution of public control over development. Planning law has been so comprehensively distorted that it now entitles developers to bribe and blackmail local authorities into accepting their proposals. John Gummer, widely and erroneously believed to have been the friend of the environment, transformed the Department of Environment from a construction policing agency to a construction promotion agency, strengthening the notorious Construction Sponsorship Directorate and establishing two new quangos to help developers get their way. One result is superheated land prices: even on the fringes of central London, development land now fetches £3 million an acre.
Development will continue to work against us until we bring it to account. This means removing developers’ inordinate priveleges and disbanding Mr Gummer’s corporate welfare schemes. Most pertinently, it means bringing down the price of urban land, so that it becomes accessible to the developments we need most. There’s only one way to do it: a clear signal from government that the feeding frenzy is over. A new planning policy guidance note, listing basic social needs and insisting that they are met before luxury developments can be approved, would do as much as anything else to make this a nation for all of its people, rather than just a priveleged few.