Cities in the Wilderness: Solving Hertfordshire’s Housing Crisis

Not every community is as committed to preserving their countryside as we are. San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley has grown from a city the size of Stevenage to a city larger than Birmingham in the space of sixty years. The population of California has doubled in my lifetime with cities springing up in the wilderness almost overnight. The same can be seen right across the deserts of Arizona, Nevada and Utah.

But the key word here is “desert”. People in Arizona aren’t particularly precious about their cacti – and with empty desert for hundreds or miles on end, there is plenty of space to go around.

Here in Hertfordshire, space is at a premium – and our arable land is some of the best in the country. It is an inheritance we want to pass on to future generations. But we also want to pass on our way of life. It is futile to preserve our fields if our children can’t afford to enjoy them because they’ve been priced out of town. It’s also meaningless to protect our schools and hospitals from overcrowding if the teachers and nurses can no longer afford to live here.

While I have heard loud and clear the voices of those who want to protect our Greenbelt, I have also heard the voices of those angered by the fact that they have been priced out of their home town, or who are bringing their children up in inadequate, substandard accommodation in the private rented sector and have lost hope that they will ever afford to own their own home. In our efforts to preserve what is special and unique about Hitchin, the voices of this second group must not be silenced.

It need not be this way. Whilst inward migration in the UK is directed towards London, in the USA the population has moved away from cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and towards these new cities in the desert. And a quick look at real estate prices explains why. £150,000 can easily buy you a four bedroom, two bathroom detached property with land and mountain views in somewhere like St. George, Utah. Who wouldn’t want to swap their tiny New York apartment for that?

If we could reverse the direction of our inward migration, we could not only reduce the numbers of houses needed in North Hertfordshire, we could increase the quality of life across the country.

You see, the UK doesn’t have a housing crisis: London and the South East have a housing crisis. The rest of the country has a jobs and wages crisis. As a result, they have been moving to places like North Hertfordshire for decades by their 1,000s in search of a better life. The price we have paid for having access to decent jobs is never-ending housebuilding – and the only way we are going to reverse this is if we spread our economy more evenly across the country.

Only a few years back you could buy a house in Stoke-on-Trent for £1 provided they you were prepared to renovate it and live in it for five years. But how easy is it to secure a fulltime, skilled job in Stoke-on-Trent now the mines and potteries have closed? There lies the problem – and until we resolve it, homes will continue to have to be built in North Hertfordshire.

But for too long, our politicians have played us off against each other, encouraging us to resent any policy – such as the Barnett Formula – that might help to bring prosperity to a different part of the country. And our rhetoric on Welfare actively encourages the unemployed to relocate from workless regions. Our current housing crisis is a by-product of a divided nation that refuses to work together for the benefit of all.

But if we could learn to work together as One Nation, understanding that our twin goals of affordable housing and decent jobs are really two sides of the same coin, if we can look beyond our aspirations for a tiny bit of real estate in one of the most expensive corners of Europe with its never-ending commutes on overcrowded trains, we can see that things don’t need to be this way. Let us build our own cities in the wilderness.