Small is beautiful

helal Uddin abbas

So wrote E F Schumacher almost a half century ago and the book is possibly more relevant to our times than when it was first published, in particular about the seemingly unsolvable problem of housing. I have believed for some time that the usual approach of politicians is to think on the grand scale, announce the solution of the housing problem in their term of office by building houses, always in multiples of a thousand, on land that is never identified and with money that is supposed to appear from somewhere or other, employing skilled workers already in short supply. It’s no wonder that people are increasingly taking these promises with more than a pinch of salt.

There is however a way to deliver thousands of homes but not in the grandstanding, broad-sweeping and ultimately undeliverable way, which is the approach of most politicians and academics who have ventured opinions on the subject. In our inner cities, which is where many people want to live, there are thousands of small parcels of land, many of them already council-owned, that provide the basis for the most ambitious house building programme since the post-war years, something that I will now examine.

When the first post-war Labour government took office in 1945, it began a massive programme of house building. It faced not only the backlog of years of poor housing in the private sector, but there were also the thousands of homes that had either disappeared or were severely damaged by the actions of the German Air Force in the previous six years. On the other hand, it had legislation already in existence, or which was enacted, which gave it what Conservative opponents called “Draconian“ powers.

The new towns housing corporations were empowered to build on greenfield land and places such as Crawley and Welwyn began to spring up all over the country, complete with schools, shopping centres and industrial estates. In urban areas, depopulation had taken place because of the bombing and evacuation, which left large empty sites that councils either bought by agreement, (the owners were only too glad to get rid of them), or by compulsory purchase.

In Bethnal Green, an area near award that for many years I represented on Tower Hamlets Council, the process actually started just before WW2 when between 1931 and 1939 the population dropped from 108,000 to 90,000. In the last population survey, that of 2017, the whole of Tower Hamlets had reached just over 300,000 in an area three times the size of the old Bethnal Green and that includes the housing in the massive Docklands development. Even with a dramatic decrease in the population overall, the housing waiting list continues to grow and is now at an all-time high. The reasons aren’t difficult to find and stem from one piece of legislation: Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy, and until that is repealed, or seriously amended, there is ultimately no long term solution. The other problems were that, from the late seventies, land prices started to rise sharply, while at the same time local authorities were prevented from long term borrowing to finance public housing as was done from the days of the first London County Council social housing project, the Boundary Estate in now fashionable Shoreditch.

There is no need, however, simply to use the Right to Buy and other factors as an excuse to do nothing. We need to start looking at how to build more properties but also, and possibly even more importantly, to keep them within the public sector. Firstly, however, let’s look at actually building something. Mark Twain famously pointed out that he recommended buying land as it wasn’t being made any more and he was, of course, absolutely correct. We need, then, to identify land in the inner cities, where we can build affordable social housing that remains always in public ownership. That’s not as difficult as some people might imagine. It’s actually already there and in public ownership!

A recent report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England identified thousands of brownfield sites across the country, which they claim can be used to build social housing without the need for new developments on green belt land and the loss of that amenity. They even found land in Tower Hamlets where they claim that 130 houses could be built. There is just one problem with the report, however well-intentioned, and that is the owners of the land are not identified and it is highly likely that the sites are privately owned.

The best way to see London is on foot and, over the course of thirty-five years in the Labour Party, I have walked just about every inch of Tower Hamlets canvassing, leafleting and getting out the vote on polling days. During those years I have always been interested in the small plots of land some no bigger than that required for one house, up to ones suitable for a small block of flats. These were in and around what I knew to be council owned property.

Recently I have started to makes notes of where these bits and pieces of real estate were and it wasn’t long before I had a list of them, enough to build at least a couple of hundred houses and flats on land that the people of Tower Hamlets already owned. The failure of the current system even to keep up with, never mind reduce, the waiting list demands that we start to think afresh and laterally. What is needed nationwide is a local land survey leading to a People’s Land Bank to be used exclusively for social housing, with no right to buy, in other words, to remain community assets in perpetuity.

The other advantage of acting locally is one of economy of scale when homes are eventually built on the land. Large schemes require large contractors, big firms of architects and layers of administration all of which absorbs a large amount of the cost of the project. The smaller the project, the lower the amount and therefore more money is available to be spent on the homes themselves. It also means that smaller contractors are able to tender, including local ones that employ local labour, once again reinforcing the Schumacher doctrine.

It would be fitting if this process were to begin in the home of so much of Labour and working-class history, the East End of London, where the Labour Party was founded, the Match Girls and Dockers strikes kick-started the union movement and the Suffragettes began the struggle for votes for women. The vehicle for this survey, and hopefully the building that will follow It, could be the new and ambitious initiative of London Moving East, set up the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan and Assembly Member, Unmesh Desai. Here lie the resources to carry out this project and I hope that this opportunity will be seized.

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