Abysmal mortgages, stomach-ache rents and sickening numbers on social housing waiting lists are all symptoms of Britain’s struggling housing sector.

For more than a decade, successive Conservative governments have searched in vain for an antidote. The pandemic has only made matters worse, with the average home earning more than the average worker in their first year.

Acute housing need is particularly widespread in the North East and North West of England: key areas for the government’s upgrading programme.

A white paper outlining the government’s plan to rebalance the economy reveals that housing construction will be concentrated on brownfields – disused and previously developed land:

The “80/20 rule” which leads to 80% of government funding for housing supply being directed to “maximum accessibility areas” – in practice, London and the South East – will be scrapped, with a much of the £1.8bn funding for brownfields instead of being diverted to brownfield transformation in the North and Midlands. Metro mayors will be allocated £120m of this funding.

While this shift from building in the southern constituencies to the abandoned parts of the north and midlands suggests a focus on the electorally key red wall, it also suggests a retreat for fear of losing the support of traditional Tory voters in places like home counties that oppose looser moves. planning rules. As my colleague Harry Lambert reports: “Johnson is uniquely in a bad position to take on his southern MPs now that he is counting on their support to stay in office.

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Britain has a lot of unused and decaying land that serves little or no function other than being an eyesore. Old factories, condemned schools, disused recreation lands and other types of abandoned land are known as brownfields.

Data from Michael Goodier

While it’s not clear that it would be enough on its own, much of this land could find new life. A report released last year by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), the campaign’s charity, found there was enough brownfield land for 1.3million new homes, or an increase of 9.5% over the total compared to 2020.

Cumulatively, there is development potential of 471,471 homes in the North and Midlands, according to CPRE data:

“Over the past three years, more than 75% of the homes that have been built in the West Midlands have been on brownfields,” said Andy Street, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands. new statesman. In 2016, the West Midlands Combined Authority set a target of building 215,000 new homes in the area over a 15-year period, which will be achieved primarily through brownfield development.

“There are probably three key reasons why it’s the right thing to do,” Street said. “First of all, any brownfield redevelopment, of course, is virgin land saved and we know that’s absolutely essential, in terms of fighting climate change, protecting the greenbelt.

[See also: How to crash the housing market]

“The second reason is that it often brings life back to communities that have literally been abandoned for decades. The third reason is that these are much more sustainable communities in every way. It gives us the opportunity to reflect [housing] density, housing types. We did what it took to make them usable and, of course, affordable too.

However, the West Midlands – a region with leveling potential – does not reflect the wider picture of Britain.

At the heart of Britain’s housing crisis is the huge amount that needs to be built to meet demand: estimates have put the figure at 345,000 new homes a year.

In his 2019 manifesto, Boris Johnson pledged his government to build 300,000 new homes a year, a target the government has never managed to achieve and is now seen as near impossible. In 2019/20 (the most recent data available), the housing stock increased by 244,000 dwellings, around 1% more than the previous year, continuing on a slow upward trajectory which nevertheless did not satisfy the request.

“The housing crisis is exceptionally severe,” said Marie Chadwick, policy officer at the National Housing Federation. Chadwick attributes most of the current problems to the lack of availability of affordable social housing, which is around 50% cheaper than that in the private rental market. “We have never seen the investments in social housing that we desperately need to solve this problem,” she said. “It’s a crisis and I don’t say that lightly. It has such an impact on families and individuals across the country.

[See also: Why the pandemic is not making your rent cheaper]

In September 2020 Robert Jenrick, the then Housing Secretary, announced the £11.5billion Affordable Housing Scheme, which aims to build 180,000 new homes, half of which will be ‘affordable’, between 2021 and 2026. In terms of brownfield development Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, announced a £1.8 billion brownfield redevelopment fund in the autumn 2021 budget which is expected to create 116,000 new homes , and has now been promoted again in the upgrade whitepaper.

This may not go far enough to meet the demand. “The government is currently not delivering 300,000 homes a year,” said Seyi Obakin, head of homeless youth charity Centrepoint, which plans to create 300 new homes for young people by renovating existing homes and building new ones on industrial wastelands. “And I don’t think the money the Chancellor has set aside is enough to get us across the line.”

Although many housing communities recognize the importance of brownfield development, it is widely accepted that it is not a silver bullet to the housing crisis.

“Some virgin land is still expected to be offered in many parts of the country,” said Paul Miner, land use and planning manager at CPRE. “But certainly around the big cities, we don’t need to release as much [greenfield] land as it currently stands, because there is still so much brownfield potential that is not going through the system.

[See also: Won’t someone think of the UK’s oppressed landlords?]

CPRE wants a “brownfields first” housing policy, where development on brownfields is given priority where possible.

Although the development of brownfields may be defended by the government’s race-to-the-top agenda, there is still a long way to go. “My feeling is that there will be a lot of pressure to keep things going as they are, just because there are a lot of people making a lot of money with the current policies,” Miner said, alluding to the large accommodations. developers making skyrocketing profits.

“The problems we have now may well persist, but a lot depends on the government’s strategy of racing to the top and how it gets more support for local authorities to meet the needs.”

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