WE are now in the midst of a housing "crisis".
Apparently there are 4.5 million people in housing "need". A million first-time buyers have been "locked out" of the property market. And we're building fewer houses at present than "at any point" since the Second World War. What to do about this? Who can we call? "It's time for every MP in the country to mention the housing crisis."
These statements come from the National Housing Federation, "the voice of affordable housing in England". Its members, needless to add, are in the house building business, be it "affordable" or the opposite. Its Scottish counterpart, Homes for Scotland, is no less alarmist. This week, its chief executive, Philip Hogg, said that "we" need to build 465,000 new houses by 2035. As things stand, however, there will be a shortfall by that date of 160,000. "Such an outcome would have severe long-term social and economic consequences," lamented Mr Hogg.
It is, of course, the business of trade organisations to speak up for those who ensure their existence. They would like us to believe that they are not money-grabbers but altruists who, on waking of a morning, think first of the public good and then of shareholders' dividends. Thus, not only do they want to build homes for people in desperate straits but they want simultaneously to hoist us out of the financial mess into which they and the banks plunged us in the first place. Build more houses, goes the theory, and the economy will begin to pick up again, even if the people who would like to buy them don't have two beans to rub together.
Pardon me as I reach for a pinch of salt. That there is a housing "need" I am prepared to accept. But how that is to be addressed is where I must part company with the building industry's lobbyists. They want us to buy houses which increasingly you can reach only by car. They are on sites out of town with few amenities and no soul. But they have gardens, which can be covered with decking on which you can sit and sip wine and watch the sun go down over your double garage.
Such houses take up a lot of space. I know this because where I live there used to be acres of it on which leeks and potatoes, turnips and strawberries were grown in abundance. Lest anyone think I grew up in a rural nirvana let me hasten to disabuse you. My family home was on a council estate in Musselburgh which used to be in Midlothian and is now in East Lothian.
The latter is principally a farming county, around which John Muir, fabled protector of wild spaces, used to roam as a boy. "Its landscape," wrote George Scott-Moncrieff in 1947, "lies in horizontal planes of colour." Neither too steep nor too flat, the East Lothian countryside is as pleasing to the eye as a Van Gogh landscape. Yet day by day, year by year, it is being gobbled up in a relentless and voracious programme of house building, none of which, one suspects, would have inspired the Dutch genius.
From afar one watches and weeps. To the west Musselburgh grows ever nearer to Edinburgh, to the east to Prestonpans, to the south to the borders. Only the Firth of Forth prevents us from encroaching on Fife. Like lava, concrete spreads across land which, whether cultivated or not, is suffocated under its unyielding blanket. One sees a field lie fallow and one's heart sinks, knowing that soon it will be abandoned for yet another "luxury" development.
When I was a teenager the protection of the green belt was one of the hot topics of the day. No-one mentions it now, or if they do they're derided as crackpots and dreamers. But common sense surely tells us that the constant expansion of the built environment is untenable in the long run. If there truly is a housing crisis it must be tackled not simply by swapping countryside for town but by using space imaginatively and thriftily.
Personally, I favour tenement-living, which so many people seem fearful of these days. I still cherish the remark of a BBC potentate who once asked me if I still live up a close. By the way, I do, and I rather like it.
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