It is 2028, and in the old mill towns of east Lancashire terraced houses once destined for demolition have been rescued and renovated by residents who bought them for almost nothing. In the garden towns that have grown up in Bedfordshire you can walk to work through natural landscape. In Somerset, as in other shires, the next generation no longer has to move out, thanks to additions to villages planned by and for the people who live in them.
London borough councils are jointly building tens of thousands of the homes the city needs each year. Luxury towers in London, Manchester and Birmingham, left empty after the Great Crash of 2019, have been colonised by squatters who have formed themselves into cooperatives. In the outer suburbs of the big cities, declining high streets have been revived through the construction of four- and five-storey apartment buildings.
Nationally, house prices have stopped rising, with the result that they have gradually become more affordable as incomes go up. There are more homes to rent at affordable prices. Young families on modest incomes can once again expect to grow up in houses with gardens. New housing has been planned with shared open spaces, with schools and shops in walking distance, and with minimal need for cars. It is well designed, with good space standards, abundant natural light, accessibility for the disabled, durable finishes and net energy consumption of zero. Much is built to high standards in factories and transported in pieces to site. Some is hand-crafted. Some is built by its own residents, or comes in the form of weatherproof shells that they can finish off.
There is choice. You can live in a terrace, a suburb, a tower, a bungalow, a mansion block, a concrete estate. Your home can be old or new, perhaps to a contemporary design by one of the nation’s many talented architects, or in one of the popular revivalist styles: neo-Georgian, neo-brutalist, neo-postmodern (the true early adopters now go for neo-Blairian, which with witty irony emulates the glassy, optimistic architectural style of the late 1990s). Renting is as attractive as owning. You can join one of the increasing number of co-housing projects, or buy or rent from one of many community land trusts.
In this magical year, British housing is the envy of the world for its affordability and accessibility, for its planning, for the diversity and quality of its designs, for its intelligent use of new technologies in construction, for the multiplicity of tenures and of providers of housing – community groups, councils, housing associations, large and small developers. Delegations come from China, Canada and Sweden to study and learn. It did not happen easily, though: it was only after the Great Housing Riots, also of 2019, in which young doctors, teachers and solicitors linked arms with the ever more numerous homeless, that government was forced to take measures equal to the scale of the crisis.
This sounds utopian, given the current state of housing in Britain – too scarce, too expensive, small and often badly designed – and its serious effects on social mobility, family life and economic growth. In London, average house prices are 14.5 times average income. It might take decades to save up enough for a deposit. For swathes of the population under 40, the prospect of ever owning a home has dwindled almost to zero. The idea that people might get homes they actually like, in which they might repose their identities and dreams, rather than the least bad option available to them, is fading.
But the great, remarkable truth is that the ideas behind this imaginary future exist already – the tools are here now – and most are already being put successfully into practice. To be sure, their application tends to be small-scale and piecemeal. What is lacking is the concerted political will to turn valiant and thoughtful initiatives into a programme that could transform millions of lives across the country.
This vision is not-utopian in another way, in that it does not rely on a single grand plan laid on a tabula rasa. Pretty much every week, if you write about housing and architecture, you get a press release announcing that such-and-such a bright idea – exceptionally tiny flats, factory-made houses, floating homes, homes built on stilts over railway lines or hospital car parks – will “solve the housing crisis”. Invariably, they will not, but collectively they might achieve something. This is partly because, since there will always be stresses and strains as housing strives to keep up with changing needs, it will never be “solved”. More important, housing is too complex a matter to be subject to a single magic bullet. What you need depends on who you are and where you are.
The first prerequisite for getting to this promised land – hard, for market-loving conservatives – is to abandon the belief that big business always knows best. It is the mindset, clung to over decades, that has given us the Carillion catastrophe. The current housing quagmire is in large part due to the belief that volume housebuilders can, by themselves, provide homes in the numbers and at the cost the country needs. They do not, have not and never will. No amount of reduction in planning controls, the preferred option of libertarians, will change this fact. Other providers of housing – community groups, local government, housing associations and small-scale builders – will have to make good the shortfalls of the handful of companies that dominate British housebuilding.
Hence the rising popularity of community land trusts, co-housing schemes and cooperatives, concepts that vary in detail but have in common the belief that a housing project is run by and on behalf of a community. Rather than selling homes for profit, surplus is recycled as community benefit. Typically, homebuyers pay only the part of the price that reflects construction cost rather than land value, with resales carried out on the same basis. The effect is that homes can be both bought and rented for considerably lower than market rates.