Balanced Development And Housing Wealth Redistribution
Is freeing northern inner-city land the best way to a more equitable and ecologically sustainable national economy? For wealthy city-based Southerners this is possibly an obvious strategy. But some of us Up North, or anywhere in the inner-city / rural hinterland, might want a few safeguards built in.
‘The sensible way to redistribute housing wealth [and] promote balanced development’, writes Simon Jenkins in today’s Guardian, ‘is to free on to the market the millions of acres of empty and under-occupied inner-city land.’
Jenkins thus pronounces Gordon Brown’s idea for five ‘eco-friendly’ towns, apparently on derelict rural sites in the south, as ‘solely about economic growth’, with little or no reference to the ‘duty to promote social cohesion or civic enterprise.’
It appears Brown is judged to have learned nothing from the work of Willmott and Young and others who devoted much of their professional lives to the lessons of Bethnall Green in London’s East End, and other housing relocation programmes.
One size does not fit all
If Gordon Brown intends only to build his new towns, and not to
attend in any way to the issues of VAT (still imposed on brownfield development) or distantly rural housing, perhaps Simon Jenkins has a point. But I doubt that’s all there is to it.
These southern ‘eco-towns’ will free up housing in overheated areas such as the Golden Triangle, and will make it easier for many people on medium and low wages to live within striking distance of the national facilities they service for a living. These eco-towns will also offer people in some rural locations a more affordable option for housing.
The ‘Northern’ focus
I am amongst those who have argued fiercely for large-scale knowledge economy and other investments in the North of England. I don’t however think, despite Gershon and its challenging proposals, that simply trying to move people Up North
en masse is an answer – which is the de facto corollary of the ‘just develop northern inner-city brownfields’ position.
We have already noted the extraordinary idea, still promoted it seems by some strategists in the North of England, that northern housing investments and wages must be kept down – that’s the income levels of those of us Northerners actually in work, sacrificed – for the sake of in-coming investors. Now it appears that southern commentators also think northern house prices must be constrained.
One way traffic?
Charming. That’s one way to make sure people can come to us in the North, but we can’t go to live with them (and they won’t be able to go back to the South either).
What I’d rather see is two-way traffic, making it easy for people
to migrate in roughly equal numbers between different parts of the country at different points in their careers and lives.
Perhaps, indeed, it’s this fear of losing out on the housing market which is making Gershon so difficult to implement? People know, intuitively, that if they move North they will lose out, just as we up here know we can’t afford to move South, however much we might want that experience personally or professionally.
Getting real – and sustainable
So let’s get real. There is a need for more affordable housing in the South, and if it can be even quasi-carbon neutral (if ‘quasi’ is the term) I’d welcome that. We have to start somewhere.
And let’s add to that the need, frequently and vigorously promoted, to develop northern brownfield, inner-city sites in a similar way, with whatever tax breaks and incentives are
required. Maybe that’s next on Gordon Brown’s list?
But please don’t do all this in a way which actually diminishes the opportunity of the (relative minority) of Northerners who do have personal and professional high ambitions – those very people most generically equipped to promote Simon Jenkin’s overall ‘social cohesion and civic enterprise’ – from moving around the country as they should.
The North needs such people even more than the South does. At the moment however, the best advice for most very bright young graduates from northern universites is, ‘Go South Now’. (Challenge me on this is you wish…)
If we’re serious about retaining high skills practitioners in the North, it would be a good idea at least to acknowledge their
property and income interests too.