Slums for today and tomorrow

The government’s decision to go ahead with further relaxation of planning rules defies logic and will create a new generation of slums.

I touched on this in my blog in June when I wrote about this government’s obsession with planning red tape. I also suggested that, post-pandemic, there would be opportunities to turn offices into homes, but “not through the disastrous policy of Permitted Development Rights, which has created so many sub-standard homes”.

Now the government has issued new statutory instruments and amendments to the planning rules allowing wider use of Permitted Development Rights (i.e. development without the need for formal planning permission). All of this is part of their aim to streamline the planning system to churn out new homes. The problem is that it seems to contradict entirely their aim of building beautiful homes.

The first change will allow homeowners to add two storeys to houses and detached blocks of flats (one storey for single-storey houses) without the need for planning permission. (Trebles all round for flat freeholders, especially in London). There are some exemptions: they must  have been built between 1948 and 2018, the roof pitch and materials on the new extension must match existing, there must be no side windows, and the new roof must be no more than 3.5 metres higher than adjacent properties.

The second change will also allow purpose-built blocks of offices, flats or business premises to be demolished and replaced with a single purpose-built detached block of flats, or a purpose-built detached house up to two-storeys high, again without the need for planning permission. The existing building must be no more than 1,000 square metres or built after 1990 and must have been vacant for six months. Rooms must also have natural light (but can be single aspect).

This comes on top of existing Permitted Development Rights that allow offices to be converted to residential and shops to be converted to residential (up to 150 square metres) – all without permission.


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You ain’t no Roosevelt, bruv

Ignore the hype. This week’s “Rooseveltian” New Deal is no such thing. The Prime Minister’s “build, build, build” reboot of the economy amounts to no more than £5bn of existing money, and even reduces the budget for social housing, spreading the existing programme over eight years instead of five (although this has been denied by Downing Street).


By contrast, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was gargantuan. By 1933, gross domestic product in the US had fallen by nearly a third and unemployment rose from 3% to 25% percent. Between 1933 and 1939, the New Deal injected around £625bn in today’s money into the US economy. It created dozens of new agencies, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which built dams and new towns, the Public Works Administration, which built schools and roads, the Rural Electrification Administration, which brought electricity to rural areas, and the Federal Housing Administration, which set new standards for construction and stabilised the housing market to allow millions of Americans to buy their own homes.

The New Deal also funded artists like Diego Rivera to create hundreds of murals in public buildings. One of the prime causes of the US depression was the crash of 5,000 banks. Many had been speculating in shares using customers’ money, so the Glass Steagall Act of 1933 split commercial from investment banks to prevent them from speculating with customer accounts. The banking system was stabilised. The New Deal amounted to around 40% of US GDP by 1939. By contrast, this week’s announcement from Boris Johnson amounts to about 0.2% of the UK’s 2019 GDP. So, Boris Johnson’s £5bn stimulus package is the dampest of damp squibs.

I was in Germany last week where the pubs, restaurants and shops are booming (masks are obligatory). The German stimulus package amounts to over £100bn, amounting to 4% of GDP. You can expect the German economy to bounce back pretty quickly.

It is worth noting that Rishi Sunak is set to spend up to £300bn (OBR figures) on propping up the UK economy during the pandemic, as a result of furlough and other support schemes for closed businesses during what has been (in my view) an unnecessary lockdown.


The planning changes announced this week are also deeply worrying. Yet again, the planning system is being blamed for our failure to invest in housebuilding, a topic I wrote about two weeks ago. In the name of “cutting red tape” Permitted Development Rights (i.e. removing the need for formal planning permission) will be extended to brownfield sites, and will allow extensions, demolitions and conversion of commercial units to residential. This will result in thousands of awful sub-standard properties being churned out and will lead to all kinds of neighbour disputes, something I also wrote about in this report for the Intergenerational Foundation on micro-homes.

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Bad Housing Kills

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed a dirty truth that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. It’s a truth that housing folk are very familiar with, but it has mostly been ignored by government, the media and opinion formers. The truth is this: bad housing kills.

Even before the crisis struck, we knew that the most well-off people lived almost a decade longer than the least well-off. By definition, poorer people are likely to live in poorer housing. But now it is also the poor who are suffering the most from Covid-19.

According to the Office for National Statistics, deprived areas have double the mortality rate of well-off areas and the death rate is six times higher in major cities than in rural areas. BAME people have suffered most of all, with a third of all deaths.


Consider a few facts: up to 17 April in England and Wales, 36 people in 100,000 died from Covid-19. But this hides a vast disparity between rich and poor areas.

In leafy South Hams the death rate was four per 100,000, but London had a death rate 22 times higher with 86 deaths per 100,000, and within London the death rate ranged from 43 in Kingston to 144 per 100,000 in Newham. Why should Newham have over three times as many deaths as Kingston?

There are two likely answers. First, Kingston has 4,700 people per square kilometre, Newham has more than double that at 9,700. The higher the density, the higher the risk of catching coronavirus.

Second, 64% of homes in Kingston are owned and 9.5% are social, whereas in Newham, 42% are owned and almost three times as many are social – 27%. Within London as a whole, almost 15% of social homes are overcrowded compared with just 2.5% of owner-occupied households.

Not surprisingly, the latest available figures show that overcrowding in Newham is almost three times worse than in Kingston – 18% compared with 6.7% respectively.

Of course, other factors are at play. Many poor people in Newham will be working in dangerous occupations, but Cambridge virologist Chris Smith reckons that over 80% of transmission is within the home, so if you bring the virus home in Newham it is more likely that the rest of your household will succumb to it than in Kingston, where people have more space to work and isolate from each other.

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Housing, race and Covid-19

Forty years ago I wrote my degree dissertation on the links between ethnic minority communities and poor housing in London, (yes, I was a housing bore even then!). I visited Islington’s council offices to study their small area census data, and inputted the information into the university computer using paper cards. A week or so later, I received one of those huge A3 concertina print outs. This was the early days of computing when the equivalent of today’s iPhone would take up an entire room.

My conclusion was that there was indeed a correlation between bad housing and ethnic minority households in London boroughs. I had a notion that underlying racism was at work (this was barely a decade and a half after Peter Rachman had exploited racial tensions in Notting Hill to evict tenants) but I was not sophisticated or clever enough to draw any conclusions about the reasons for the correlation.

Forty years on and the picture is much clearer. A series of studies have shown that some BAME groups occupy the worst homes and experience the worst health outcomes. The English Housing Survey shows that households from ethnic minority groups are more likely to be overcrowded than White British households in all tenures and in all socio- economic groups and ages: 2% of White British and 4% of White Irish households were overcrowded compared to 30% for Bangladeshi, 16% for Pakistani, and 15% for Black African households.

The average difference between White British and BAME households was greatest in London (3% of White British households were overcrowded compared to 12% for other ethnic groups). There are also stark differences in the tenure occupied by different groups. The UK Housing Review shows that 17% of White households live in the social sector compared to 39% of Bangladeshi and 42% of Black households. The social sector has higher levels of overcrowding – 8% compared to 1% for owners. (The picture is not uniform across the board – Asian, Indian, and Chinese households are less prevalent in the social sector than White households: 14%, 6%, and 6%, respectively.)

A Labour force survey in 2018 also showed that Bangladeshi and Pakistani households were much more likely than any other ethnic group to live in a multi-family household. Other studies have found that BAME households are concentrated in older and unsafe properties.

Of course, there are cultural and other reasons for these disparities – direct discrimination in the private rented sector has been well documented, but institutional racism in housing and employment has also played a part across all tenures and occupations for decades. In the social sector, for example, residential qualifications discriminated against newer arrivals. I am old enough to remember signs on pub doors in Islington saying “Travellers by appointment only”, and it is a certainty that both blatant and discreet prejudice is still at work in all areas of our society.

But COVID-19 has starkly exposed these housing differences. The ONS has found that Black men and women are four times as likely to die from the virus when compared with White people. Bangladeshi and Pakistani males were almost twice as likely to die as White males. Overall, the most deprived areas are experiencing double the deaths of the most affluent areas, and the death rate per 100,000 people ranges from four in leafy South Hams to 144 in Newham – an incredible disparity. The virus has hit hardest in the highest density areas, and London has the highest death rate of any region.

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