Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog

On David Harvey, capitalism and building a way out of the recession

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There were many aspects of David Harvey’s lecture and our subsequent discussion of it that were intriguing, not least of which was the idea that in instances of economic recession, governments tend to try and build their way out of crisis; creating more homes so that people can start filling them with more things. The current Tory government in the UK appears to be attempting to do just that, with successive attacks on the planning system designed to speed up planning applications and allow more land to come under development. Most recently, the new planning minister for England has argued that there needs to be more building on greenfield land. This proclamation, in spite of broad agreement that there is a need for more homes, has been met by vehement opposition from a variety of quarters. The daily telegraph launched a campaign called Hands Off Our Land, environmental agencies responded strongly. But the issue is obviously complex. The rhetoric under which such a proposition is justified is the the NEED for housing. Unquestioned. Tragedies like people having to live with their parents, or not buying their first house of flat until they in their thirties are given as examples of the absolute crisis we are in in terms of housing shortages. Having had to personally come to terms with this myself I think gives me position to say that a great deal of the tragedy here is fabricated and imposed by a societal structure that presents such things as tragedy. Of course, I understand why some people would not want to live with their family members, although it’s worth noting that in many cultures this is the norm. And I understand as well that the way most houses are constructed does not make them particularly conducive to sharing, although millions of students seem to cope.

In any case, the tragic housing shortage MUST be handled, but is building on greenfield land really necessary? People argue that there are empty homes (true) and that these should be made available first (agreed) and that there are brownfield sites (that have already been developed in some way or are simply within urban areas and not officially parks or green spaces) and that these should be developed first (yes but also arguable  given that not all land classed as brownfield is already covered in tarmac or should be… green spaces in cities are important!). But assuming these things have already been prioritized, which they have for some time now, should development be allowed in the countryside? Well, considering that I’ve been looking at low impact development in the open countryside, and seeing how the planning system is so adamantly against this because it is development in the countryside, frankly I’m inclined to say that yes, the idea that the countryside should be devoid of development precludes the possibility of a proliferation of small scale land-based enterprises and their associated dwellings, and this needs to be changed. So in principle, I have to agree. Preventing people from building in the countryside, whether its a house for the children of a farmer on the family farm (currently not allowed unless it can be proven that all new adults living on site would be engaged full time in the farming business), or low impact homes for low impact lifestyles seems perverse. Yet, the planning system seems to be, if anything, much more strongly resistant to such small-scale affairs, whose impact is likely to be very small on the countryside than it is to allowing very large-scale developments. The large-scale developments are seen as meeting the housing need. Suddenly the fact that they will have a massive impact on the countryside doesn’t matter, whereas it still matters a great deal for individual dwellings and small scale developments.

Do we need developments of 2-3000 uniform buildings developed by a giant development corporation on land that could be used productively for agriculture? It’s pretty hard to justify that while resisting so hard much smaller and more sensitive developments.

The above-mentioned planning minister, Nick Boles, has also said that new buildings should be beautiful and that many new developments were, quote ‘pig ugly’ and that this resulted in people feeling more vehemently opposed to new developments. Once again, I have to agree. However, though we may both think that developments of the kind that Boles is essentially promoting, those (mass) produced monstrosities emerging from giant development corporations whose only motivations are financial are ugly, Boles doesn’t make the connection between the ugliness and the means of production. For me, the fact that such companies are primarily profit-motivated and that their profits rely on economies of scale, that is, they buy materials (and designs) in bulk to save on costs, means that whatever lip service government ministers may give to quality design, ultimately the products will be largely cookie-cutter, uniform developments of 2-3000 houses (practically whole towns – or rather suburbs since the jobs and many services that would allow these places to resemble towns are missing). Ultimately, soulless, uniform, poorly thought out buildings and settlements, which people will still buy, because they don’t have much choice. Because the fact that giant corporations can build on such massive scales means they can undercut the prices of other homes quite dramatically. The fact that the government will also bend over backwards to let them develop, on greenfield land or anywhere else, also means they have an advantage with which other, small groups and individuals will be hard pressed to compete with.

As Harvey points out, such developments will be funded by the same financiers who will lately offer the mortgage loans to people to encourage them to buy all these new builds. Meanwhile, the government holds a vested interest in also feeding this debt-machine, in running the capitalist model of ‘wealth creation’ or ‘growth’, which could also be called ‘debt creation’ and ‘social control’.

At the same time as these 2-3000 house developments are being built, generally with little thought of incorporating environmentally-friendly or socially progressive design elements (other than in rare cases or where forced by government policies on sustainable homes and affordable housing), individuals wishing to create low-impact settlements in the countryside will continue to struggle against a system that says ‘no development in the open countryside’ and places increasingly more and more restrictive conditions on any such development.

This is because the concern is not really with ensuring that people are housed, that they are productive and happy, that the environment is not damaged unduly… the concern is with churning money, with creating ‘growth’. The system is geared towards getting those developers to take out huge loans, build thousands of houses, and then towards getting thousands of people to take out more loans in order to buy them; People who will no doubt have to commute to their jobs in the nearest city in order to be able to afford the mortgages on their new, and perhaps larger than necessary, homes. The whole system is justified under the auspices that more houses are needed, and no one really questions, at a systemic level, the ethics and repercussions of the way this tends to be done.

And it’s not as if there aren’t alternatives. If the government were really interested in people having good quality, suitably sited, environmentally-friendly buildings, there are many ways it could go about this. For one thing, making land-banking illegal would level the playing field immediately between the giant development corporations and much smaller groups and organizations. Relaxing the planning policies on rural enterprise dwellings and allowing some new building around existing buildings in the countryside would also be a step in the right direction. This would help to meet the needs for housing, keep young people in rural areas, and even promote a diversification of economic development in rural areas, something that is at present stunted by the fact that the only people who can afford homes in the countryside are retirees or people who work elsewhere and use the country houses as holiday homes, thereby contributing very little to the local economy.

All these issues are often lamented in the field of planning both academically and in practice, and yet there is little recognition of quite how significant economics, and particularly the capitalist neoliberal system are in producing these effects. The Marxist critique offered by David Harvey gives much clarity to the serious structural and systemic conditions that bring such things about and are the real barriers to ‘sustainable development’ in any real sense. The idea that the planning system could create more socially just and environmentally sensitive settlement patterns and ways of living seems something of a fantasy in light of the powerful forces of the capitalist machine. Still, Harvey enables us to understand these contemporary issues and perhaps at least helps to pave an inroad to considering what to do about them.

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