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Monday, 5 March, 2001, 13:36 GMT
The housing crush

We're a small country with a large population - do we have the housing policies to make sure that everyone will be getting a decent roof over their heads in the coming decades?

Housing is a devolved matter dealt with by the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies.


BACKGROUND

The UK has long been one of the most densely populated countries in Europe - but the pressure for new housing is continuing to grow as the demographic profile of the nation changes.

People are living longer and more of them are doing so by themselves rather than in the traditional family unit that for so long characterised society.

Housing facts
Housing is a devolved matter
20.5m homes in England
24m needed by 2021
5.8m one-person households in England
8.5m one-person homes needed by 2021
The Department of the Environment, Transport and Regions (DETR) estimates that England - and particularly the densely populated urban conurbations of the south-east - faces the greatest housing pressures of all.

There are currently approximately 20.5 million homes in England. Of these, 5.8 million are for one-person households.

Population experts predict that there will be demand for 8.5 million one-person households by 2021.

The government's official figures predict that by 2016 we will need to have built 3.8 million new homes to accommodate the new face of the British population.

This demand is at its highest in south-east England.

A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that between 1994 and 1997 23,000 people annually left northern England every year while an average of 70,000 arrived in south-east England from across the UK.

In 1999, the government-sponsored Crow Report (named after its chairmen) found that south-east England (excluding London) needed 1.1 million new homes by 2016 - 62% more than those proposed by the local authorities.


HOUSING PLANS

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who is also head of the DETR, sought to act on that report by unveiling a green paper for housing in the spring of 2000.

As well as a number of structural changes to the housing market and specific measures for key-sector workers in London (see party policy page), it set targets for homebuilding.

Mr Prescott said that 60% of housing development would have to be on existing "brownfield" sites - urban areas which previously had an industrial or commercial usage.

The remaining 40% of development would be on new sites - prompting fears that the era of the greenbelts around the UK's cities was coming to an end.

This raised questions about how exactly - and where - these homes would be built.

Annual housing need (SE England)
55,000 (Crow)
39,000: (DETR)
33,000: (Serplan)
Serplan, the planning authority that represents local authorities in south-east England, told the government that no more than 33,400 homes could be built annually without serious damage to the region's environment, quality of life and infrastructure.

It said that planning policy has to focus on a more sustainable development policy

However, Mr Prescott insisted that the authorities had to meet a target of 43,000 new homes a year - effectively a mid-figure between Serplan's low-end target and the Crow report's high-end projection of 55,000 homes a year.

In December 2000 Nick Raynsford, the housing minister, announced that the government had cut its target to 39,000 new homes a year in south-east England after talks with Serplan.

OPPOSITION CRITICISMS

The changes did little to impress the opposition parties.

Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats called for a higher proportion of new homes to be built on brownfield sites - 66% and 75% respectively.

Homes needed by 2016 (England)
South-West: 367,000
East: 209,400
East Midlands: 363,000
Yorkshire/Humber: 251,700
North-East: 119,000
Inquiries continuing for North-West and West Midlands
The Conservatives have also attacked the housing plans unveiled last year, predicting that they will not meet the right type of demand.

They say that over 20 years the building programmes will add up to 900,000 houses - the equivalent of eight towns the size of the Berkshire town of Slough.

But crucially, they say, the proposals that Labour unveiled in government will lead to predominantly more luxury or large family homes on greenfield areas when the demand is for single-person and elderly accommodation in inner-cities.

The party has sought to make it a campaign issue, accusing John Prescott of "environmental vandalism" by concreting over south-east England.

One new policy that the Tories have put forward is to give towns the power to create new greenbelts and prevent development - though Labour suggests that this is unworkable.

The party has now called for the targets to be abolished in favour of renovation of existing housing stock.

The Liberal Democrats have opposed the programme for concentrating on building new homes rather than converting empty stock.

For instance, they say that in south-east England there are an estimated 800,000 empty homes - 67,000 of which have been empty for more than a year.

Labour is unconvinced, predicting that removing Whitehall's central strategic planning role in housing would result in total chaos - and that the government's current five-year housing projections are pragmatic.

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