Rats! This wasn’t what we had in mind

GANGS of over-sexed males roam the alleyways, attacking anyone who stands in their way, Mothers neglect their babies, abandoning and even injuring them. Weaker males are so cowed that they sink into depression or even something that seems like autism. Juveniles, tossed out into the streets by their careless, self-obsessed parents, run riot.

You might recognise these scenes from the crowded hearts of many British cities.

In fact they are observations on rats and mice, from a famous series of experiments in the 1950s and 1960s by an American scientist.

John B Calhoun created what he called “Mouse Universes”. He put a few pairs of mice into what the rodents probably thought was Utopia. They had everything they needed to be happy – food, exercise, entertainment. Everything, that is, except enough space. As numbers soared and they became more and more crowded, their society broke down.

It’s dangerous to be too literal about translating lessons from one species to another, but the similarities are striking. Even Calhoun’s observation that overcrowded female mice eventually stopped breeding has echoes in Britain. In the 1960s our birth rate began to decline steeply, and only reversed when we started taking in large numbers of immigrants.

SOMETIMES when I look at the new pocket-sized housing estates springing up around Plymouth, I wonder if the ghost of J B Calhoun is still running his experiments.

For a generation, Governments have failed to deliver the number and quality of homes we need.

Now Cameron and his coalition Government are promising to deliver a seismic shift in society… but will it all just be hot air?

The Government’s Localism Bill, if passed, will send power back to communities. Allegedly. The first thing Plymouth must seize on is housing and space, because without those (as Calhoun showed) you will still have to deal with the other social ills.

Experts like Christopher Balch, the new Professor of Planning at the University of Plymouth, and Paul Barnard, Plymouth’s chief planner will need to figure out how it’s done.

Prof Balch, who used to run the UK arm of the DTZ property services firm, responsible for billions of pounds worth of deals a year, gave me two statistics which I found shocking: Britain builds the smallest houses in Europe; and only 40 to 45 per cent of what you pay for a new house goes on building costs.

SO HOW come we have some of the highest property prices in the world? And why have hundreds of thousands been pushed off the housing ladder?

Blame “affordable housing”. Councils, ordered to provide this bizarre creature, are forced to favour large-scale developers instead of small builders or individuals.

When a developer buys a block of land to build houses, he or she is required to provide a certain percentage as “affordable housing”. The number varies from authority to authority: in Plymouth it’s 30 per cent for anything over 14 houses. These so-called affordable houses go to uses such as shared equity and socially rented. In other words, they are reserved for people who can’t afford market prices or market rents.

I’ve met a few property developers and none struck me as a philanthropist, so you can be sure that they will pass on the costs to buyers of the rest of their new homes. Put it another way: the price of new homes will go up – and even more people won’t be able to afford market rates.

Starting with the Conservatives and accelerating under New Labour, so-called affordable housing has driven us into a mad world where we pile more and more tiny boxes on to smaller and smaller plots, and call them “houses”.

I prefer to think of them as the Mouse Universe.

Prof Balch says that building a home is most people’s dream. “We all watch Kevin McCleod, don’t we?”

And he adds that most developers are greedy.

Perhaps Plymouth City Council might consider using the new Government’s devolution of powers to pioneer a new housing model – or rather, an old one which, according to Paul Barnard, used to happen in Plymouth in the 1960s and 1970s.

Instead of selling land to big developers, the council could subdivide and sell to individuals and small local builders.

A small premium on the sale price could be used to fund infrastructure and new building of what used to be called council houses.

There might even be scope to give land to housing co-operatives to self-build their homes under the watchful eye of a housing association.

Seems like a Grand Design to me. And it would also reinvigorate local builders and architects.

A version of this column appeared in The Herald on January 26, 2011


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