The welcome news this morning that the Lib Dems are to campaign for new Garden Cities in the South of England needs to be matched with a wider debate about the sustainability of many of our villages and hamlets. The 1000’s of people in Sussex who are inadequately housed, along with the 100,000’s whose chance of ever owning their own home will not be helped by a Garden City in the line between Oxford and Cambridge deserve to be heard and indeed we have a duty to meet their needs. That does not make the Garden Cities a bad idea, simply that alone they will not solve the housing needs faced by our nation and all of the main parties need to discuss this in a sensible manner.
Homelessness is a complex issue, of which only a very small tip are the men and women who many of us see on a weekly basis sitting in the door ways of closed shops, sometimes begging. Many 1000’s of people are living in cramped conditions or inadequate properties in most towns in the South of England. As the Bank of England economist, Kate Barker argued a few years ago, the cost of homes are affected by the supply of empty houses, and when housing costs 20 or even 10 times average wages in a given area, there is de facto a shortage of housing. This is true in many of our large towns and cities, but it is also the case where few of us live, in villages and hamlets. One of the reasons why our large towns and cities have such pressure on their housing supply, is due to the forced emigration from villages because of the lack of free housing in the places where these people have grown up. In some cases this problem is made worse, or even caused directly by the wealthy property owners in large cities who choose to buy a second home in the country, using their enhanced buying power to outbid local people whose incomes are limited by the profitability of rural businesses. In this regard the rather depressing TV programmes such as those hosted by Kirsty Allsop have a great deal to answer for, creating very unjust societal dynamics.
Clearly building more homes for second home owners to purchase is not what is needed, there needs to be some level of control regarding how our villages and small towns can be sustained if there are substantial numbers of second homes in the area. Any location depends for its basic services such as GP practices, bus services and local shops, in large part on the footfall for these. It is vital that where these services are under threat or absent services are needed by the full time residents, that the decision to build new homes and the controls regarding how such homes are sold or leased is discussed and debated. Sadly all too often the debate about development focuses on the needs and wishes of those who are already very comfortable, yet the needs of a whole community need to be considered, even if this leads to the view from a small number of homes being obscured by new housing.