David Hogg: Geographical accident could solve housing crisis

The city of the future threatens to grow inexorably. Image: Getty
The city of the future threatens to grow inexorably. Image: Getty
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We don’t have a housing crisis – crises end. We have a chronic wasting disease. The young cannot buy. Key workers we need to run our cities cannot afford to live in them. Rather than making productive investments in commerce and industry we use houses as an alternative speculative currency. Above all there is the gigantic waste of time, energy and wealth spent commuting and polluting.

Is this inevitable? Consider this. It costs the average Briton three-and-a-half times more than a German to keep a roof over their head. The figures come from the Economist, not Shelter. We are clearly doing something desperately wrong.

Understanding the cause may help us find a solution. In the 1930s almost all the 17,000 workers at the Glasgow Springburn engine works walked home to tenements housing them at densities of up to 400 per acre. Town Planners’ policies remain rooted in this era. Their ideal city is a mix of housing, factories, offices, schools, parks, shops, theatres, etc. In it almost everyone “lives over the shop”, or on a bus route to their work.

They have never come to terms with mass private transport by car, the two-earner family, or with people choosing where they want to live.

The result is the mess we are in. Because of the scale and complexity of the city we have become each other’s congestion. Simple geometry tells us that the planners’ “solution”, adding on yet another ring of suburban housing, leads to a dead end.

But does a solution exist? Basically, house prices are driven by scarcity of land areas with easy access to work. We need to somehow increase these areas. But road and rail are saturated and we know we cannot afford to build new routes through built-up areas. Because the workplaces are scattered in urban congestion we can’t get everyone on buses. Mass transport only really works when delivering to a very concentrated focus.

A solution might be to take the commercial centres out of the cities. But of course the existing transport arteries all converge on the city centres. So this is a stupid Utopian concept? Yes, except oddly for central Scotland. By an accident of geography, west of Edinburgh just south of the airport, the major road, rail, and air arteries of central Scotland converge.

This is how we begin to cure our transport problems and hence our housing problems. Just east of Newbridge we designate an area, call it the HUB. We build interchanges on the M8 and A8 feeding into a ring road. Three short new rail links allow a station in the centre of the HUB direct access to the whole Scottish rail network. We zone the area within the ring for offices, nothing else. At a reasonable density this will provide space for 150,000 workers, all within easy walking distance of the station and ring road. If we avoid gold plating, all this can be done well within the cost of the Edinburgh tram line. Provided with ready-made planning consents an incoming employer can start digging the next day.

We have cut the long crawl through the city off all journey times. This opens easy access to jobs from huge areas of central Scotland. Proposals for 500 houses in Barnton cause a middle-class riot, but in Shotts, Blackridge or a dozen other communities they would be cause to declare a public holiday. By increasing the supply we bring liquidity to the market and burst the speculative land cost bubble, steadily reducing house prices across Scotland.

Would the HUB attract users? We have access to a large workforce in an English speaking country: a stimulating location looking out over central Scotland, and easy access to the Edinburgh hotel and entertainment zone. But the greatest attraction for the incoming company is the certainty of clear and immediately available consents. And an international airport literally within walking distance, unique in Europe. Gold dust! It would work.

Central government could do it. But it won’t. The current “reform” of the Scottish planning system, almost unbelievably in a time of rapid change, proposes a ten-year period between fundamental rethinks. From bitter experience we know that planning, from pure habit, will continue permitting the spread of housing into the area. Very soon this will destroy the unrepeatable opportunity to take advantage of this wonderful accident of geography. It would make you weep.

David J Hogg is a building designer with experience in commercial and private housing development