Brownfield sites are the icing on the cake. They are not the cake.

This is an amended version of a letter that appeared in the Evening Standard on 21st August 2013:

Help to Buy is a means to an end; but it is further exposing underlying problems in our ability to deliver the right homes, in the right locations, expeditiously and cost-effectively.

A contractor client of mine recently remarked that the residential side of the construction industry has gone through the roof post-Help to Buy. However, since the credit crunch, not only has the industry lost skilled labour, it has lost the factories and production lines to deliver raw material.  As a consequence, not only is is extremely difficult to acquire what might be regarded as elementary products (facing bricks, breeze blocks etc), basic supply and demand economics is pushing the price up.  Another client was lamenting the fact that the cost of paint required to complete an executive residence has increased since 2008 by 30%.  These pressures will be felt across the housing spectrum, and not simply the top end.

So this tells us that we are not presently geared up to deliver the homes we need.  But this is not a conspiracy set by volume housebuilders.  They are commodity based like any other industry; it’s in their interest to build and sell as many homes as possible – they become bigger, more profitable, more resilient, more capable of driving economies of scale.  Equally, the supply chain wants to make and sell more products.  

In my opinion, the problem lies in the continuing uncertainty created by the planning system, and the myth and hypocrisy that is allowed to fester by politicians and social commentators that we can build our way out of our housing crisis – and it is a crisis – by relying on brownfield sites. Especially in London, brownfield sites are the icing (and in the majority of zone 1 and 2 areas the cherry) on the cake.  They are not the cake. 

To make a marked difference in the delivery of housing, we need to show the ambition and foresight last seen directly after the Second World War.  I find it remarkable (but equally depressing) that the Mayor has been able to openly (and to an extent credibly) promote the possibility of building a Thames Gateway airport (and effectively closing Heathrow), but presumably considers it too politically incendiary to make a case for greenfield housing development on the edge of London and the hinterland of the South East.  

Ultimately, there is only one answer, but I’m not expecting to see it written in a party manifesto any time soon.