Planning policy: Don't blame the countryside for our lack of housing

Tony Gosling tony at
Fri Sep 7 23:42:26 BST 2012

Planning policy: Don't blame the countryside for our lack of housing

Britain is desperately inefficient in its land 
use, and there are still no measures to bring empty property back on the market

Simon Jenkins -, Thursday 6 September 2012 20.18 BST

The government's learning curve on planning is 
like an ant climbing a mountain. Desperate for 
someone to blame for the lack of growth, David 
Cameron has fallen back on the Margaret 
Thatcher's old bogey, local government, and the 
bugbear of planning control. Last year he tried 
to nationalise development control, in the most 
cack-handed fashion, and was beaten back. 
Thousands of landowners came close to pocketing 
random lucrative building permits, as in Ireland. 
A crude bid by lobbyists to de-activate local 
planning was stopped just in time.

Now the coalition is moving at least in the right 
direction. It is staying within the context of 
its revised framework and concentrating on 
tweaking the rules. It proposes a "planning 
holiday" on building extensions, to boost local 
construction. Intensifying the use of building 
plots, including back gardens, is sensible in a 
country whose suburbs have some of the lowest densities in Europe.

Dismantling Section 106 agreements – under which 
developers contribute to the costs of 
infrastructure – is more controversial. Labour 
requiring all new estates to have 30%-50% 
"affordable" housing was a clear constraint on 
building, and means that sometimes nothing is 
built at all. But to offer to bring all such 
deals to Whitehall rather than slashing the 
minimum percentage below, say, 20 is a sure 
recipe for chaos and delay. The Treasury's 
Treasury secretary Danny Alexander asserted on 
Thursday that central government is the best 
judge of local markets, as he coolly nationalised 
yet another chunk of local government. To call 
this a localist government is laughable.

Britain today has thousands of acres of land 
awaiting development. Drive (or, more 
revealingly, fly) across middle England and 
everywhere you see post-industrial brownfield 
sites lying vacant, more, probably, than ever in 
history. The British are desperately inefficient 
in their use of land. Young people expect to buy 
rather than rent far sooner than in Germany or 
most other European countries. Older families 
hoard space merely to pass it on one day to their 
children. There are reportedly 25m unused 
bedrooms in England, up to 400,000 houses empty 
and the same number of building plots lying idle 
with permission granted for building. High street 
premises are vacant because of restrictions on use.

It is not planning but government regulation and 
subsidy that have distorted the property market 
for decades, helping neither rich nor poor. 
Cameron indulged last weekend in his ritual abuse 
of local councils and talked of putting planning 
departments into "special measures". Most are 
merely trying to interpret his ever-changing 
rules. He seems unaware that it is central 
regulation that lies at the heart of the problem.

So where is the real de-regulation? There are no 
measures to bring empty property or empty sites 
back on to the market. There are no proposals to 
encourage subletting. There is no relief from the 
soaring cost of micro-regulation. Builders reckon 
Whitehall rules on building materials, wall 
thicknesses, health, energy, accessibility and 
safety have added some 30% to costs over the last 
25 years, and are now a quarter more onerous than 
in Europe. It is not the lack of a meadow that 
holds back house-building in Britain, but 
government. Cameron should be inquiring into this, not dithering over Heathrow.

Housing is like health. Everyone in politics 
declares it to be "in crisis". If house prices 
are soaring, they are in crisis; if falling, they 
are in crisis. But for those with an available 
downpayment, prices are falling, and a mortgage 
is cheaper than ever. It is not land supply that 
is "in crisis" but housing demand. Houses are no 
different from cars, holidays, consumer durables 
and private services. They are "unaffordable" 
because fewer people can afford them. Meanwhile, 
first-time buying is said to be picking up. Why? 
Because the government is splashing subsidy over it.

The temptation for politicians to blame others 
for their own failings is understandable – and 
now overwhelming. But the British economy is 
stuck in double-dip recession, not because it has 
too much countryside but because it is in a 
liquidity trap. The chancellor rejects 
Thatcherite monetarism – pumping real money into 
the real economy – in favour of socialist 
centralism. George Osborne is trying to 
nationalise both the planning system and the 
housing market, and he wants to initiate grand 
projects which he seems to regard as not public 
spending, largely because he says so. He is all 
for deficit finance, so long as it is on projects 
for which the government can claim credit.

The future prosperity of Britain does not lie in 
more power for the man in Whitehall. Shades of 
Silkingrad – what locals called Stevenage in 1946 
in a fit of new-town blues – hover over every 
central planning "initiative". Yet again this 
week ministers were murmuring of the need for new 
eco-cities, for something big and headline 
grabbing. The "Shard mentality" – that only 
something big and ordained by ministers can make 
a difference – is what enervated and impoverished 
urban Britain in the past half century. While 
Europe's provincial cities raced ahead, Britain's 
languished under the cosh of Westminster contempt.

There is no tiger of growth straining at the 
leash inside the depths of the planning system. 
It is a myth, a fiction, a silly excuse. There 
is, instead, a tedious inflation of central 
regulation, which the government seems reluctant 
to combat. And there is no money. The chancellor 
refuses the one sure remedy to all this: to put 
his credit on the line and reflate the economy.
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