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Last Updated: Monday, 20 November 2006, 15:38 GMT
New homes plan 'must be rethought'
Continuing the BBC News website's series looking at housing in the UK, Professor of Social Policy at London School of Economics, Anne Powers warns that new houses alone are not the answer and a rethink is needed in order to develop successful new communities.

Housing tower demolition
VAT impedes the redevelopment of existing homes

Housing has become a major topic because housing costs are extremely high in large parts of the South East and the South West of England and in more popular parts of the rest of Britain.

The economy has been growing steadily for 13 years and the number of jobs has multiplied.

Land constraints and fragmenting households have greatly increased pressures, leading to large-scale outer building in southern "growth areas".

Over planning

At the same time immigration is far outstripping emigration, creating even greater pressure, particularly in London. We cannot indefinitely build more - we are an island.

And we are overbuilding in much of the rest of the country. There are major disincentives to repair existing homes within older industrial areas of the Midlands and the North of England.

We should stop demolishing decayed terraced homes in the North and much needed affordable housing in the South
People often prefer to buy a new house in a suburb than to renovate an older existing home.

Local authorities in the North and Midlands are competing with each other for a limited pool of residents.

So they plan far more houses than are actually needed. Tyneside, Teesside, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, the West Midlands are all doing this.

The pressures of growth in the South East, decline and overbuilding elsewhere are socially polarising and environmentally harmful.

We build about the right number of homes but in the wrong places. So what should we do?

We should create incentives to reinvest in existing buildings. At the moment, there is a tax of 17.5% VAT on all repair and renovation.

This is an absurd barrier to maintaining what are often intrinsically well-planned, well-designed homes and streets.

Housing and for sale signs

We need to shift planning and design in favour of existing communities. Integrating old with new makes close-grained urban spaces attractive and harmonious.

We have a vast stock of under-used buildings created over centuries of urban and industrial growth that require specialised restoration and design skills.

We cannot afford to throw away existing housing assets. So we should stop demolishing decayed terraced homes in the North and much needed affordable housing in the South.

Architects and planners must adapt to this new low-impact approach, since the environmental impact of new housing is devastating.

Yet the Treasury subsidises infrastructure for new developments at about 35,000 per home, with extremely weak enforcement on environmental standards.

Yet suburbanites are generally better off, and white, while older, inner-city communities are poorer and more racially mixed.

Community cohesion

Most houses that will be here in 30 years time already exist. Therefore, creating incentives to make these homes attractive, environmentally friendly and energy efficient, is key to future sustainability and community cohesion.

Families would stay in cities if neighbourhood environments were better cared for, greener, cleaner, and safer.

For this to happen, we need local management of local conditions and services within attractive, integrated and dynamic neighbourhoods.

We also need traffic-calmed "home zones" that favour people of all ages on foot and bicycle over cars. Streets then become an outdoor living room.

So we should stop mega-planning, we should abandon the numbers game of house-building which led to such disastrous decisions in the past; we should outlaw out-of-town building until we have exhausted the myriad small, infill sites that exist within all our cities, suburbs, towns and communities.

It is simply too environmentally harmful, too ugly and too socially divisive to plan, design and build new housing on bare land outside existing places.

We must think of the small, local communities we need to restore rather than destroy.

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