All posts tagged: planning
Why are we not building the number of homes we need?
Apart from a lack of public subsidy, most commentators agree that there are three principal culprits. Firstly, the planning system, which the government appears to believe is the ringleader in the dock. They are only half right. Planning departments spend much of their time on development control, which is important in preserving and enhancing our built environment. There is a debate to be had about the level of red tape, but the government’s decision to relax permitted development rights and allow unfettered construction of extensions and conservatories will do little to stimulate growth and will probably lead to community conflict – the very antithesis of localism. It is bonkers. The strategic side of planning is certainly a key barrier to growth by failing to release sufficient land for our housing needs. But here the government appears to have scored an own goal by removing national and regional house-building targets and putting the onus on local people to vote for development, using bribes like the new homes bonus, neighbourhood planning and the community infrastructure levy to persuade people to accept growth. The early evidence is that many local authorities are using the bonus for anything but new homes and are reducing their housing targets from the previous regional figures. Given that property owners tend to dominate local planning debates it seems unlikely that a bottom-up approach will provide the new homes we need, and there are no signs that the government is thinking about a new genernation of garden cities, as flagged in the NPPF.
The second culprit is the lack of mortgage finance, but this is both a bad and a good thing. Bad because almost an entire generation is being denied the chance to buy a home of their own but good because it is helping to suppress demand and thus keep house prices stable. But as soon as banks rebuild their balance sheets and turn on the mortgage tap house prices will rise and we will be in the foothills of yet another housing bubble. Why? Because, as we all know, house-building is inelastic to demand. Increasing demand without a corresponding increase in supply inevitably leads to higher prices.
Which brings me to the principal culprit of this blog, the house-builders themselves. We all know by now that our house-building industry is unfit for purpose. Their principal objectives are to speculate in land and maximise their margins, rather than respond to needs or demand. But in some respects house-builders are an easy target. I was struck by this recent blog from planning academic Sarah Payne who presents a great analysis of the world of risk that house-builders inhabit, where any slight change in land prices, house prices or interest rates can destroy their business plan at a stroke and where planning can take years to achieve, adding further uncertainty to their operations. So, like Winnie the Pooh with his honey, they hoard their land, minimise their risks and, in order not to unsettle fragile local housing markets they release new homes a few at a time. It keeps their shareholders happy, but land availability is at the root of this problem. If house-builders were certain that they could sell their product at the cost of production plus a reasonable margin they would be no different to car or widget makers, and would produce homes to meet demand, and even create new demand by diversifying their product. It is principally the scarcity of land that causes them to act so cautiously.
So house-builders act rationally in an irrational world. But they do it together and the industry is increasingly dominated by a few big players. Smaller builders are disappearing fast and the industry is failing to respond to demand, and failing to create new demand for their mostly unimaginative products (cedar cladding anyone?). As Jules Birch pointed out recently, they are increasingly feather-bedded with huge government subsidies. They also have the power to silence or suppress any criticism, as this incident shows. To me, the house-building industry looks and sounds increasingly like a cartel.
If we think about historic cartels like the supermarkets, the airline industry or telecoms, they were tackled by deregulation and competition. EasyJet and Ryanair destroyed the complacency and over-pricing of British Airways and other national carriers. Aldi, Netto and Lidl shook up the supermarket industry, the deregulation of BT allowed other telecom providers into the market. Not only did this increase choice and push down prices, but these new entrants also created demand – by flying to new destinations, for example. It’s debatable whether stag weekends in Prague are a good or bad thing in the wider scheme of things, but the budget airlines undoubtedly revolutionised a moribund industry.
Why has the same process not happened in house-building? Where are the new entrants, the competition, the innovation, the new products, the creation of new demand? An entire generation wants to buy but the house-building industry is simply not interested. Can you imagine any other sector where this would even be possible?
So what is the answer? More competition certainly. Nationalisation or enforced fragmentation of the sector? Deregulation? The creation of a new not-for-profit housebuilder who could take on public land and build to meet needs? More land obviously. But as Sarah Payne points out, if I had all the answers I would be on my way to London to bang on the door of the CLG! I don’t, but something clearly needs to be done. The last time the OFT investigated the house-building industry was in 2007. Perhaps they need to have another look.
Last week’s publication of the National Planning Policy Framework left both sides in the debate claiming victory, which means either that the document was brilliantly drafted, or one side was either putting on an act or had misread the document - or both. I certainly think the final NPPF is a triumph of drafting – it seems to have pleased both sides and may end up pleasing neither - yet it seems to me that the bodies who opposed the draft NPPF, including the National Trust, the CPRE and the Daily Telegraph could hardly afford to lose face in public, given the amount of time and effort they had spent in attacking the government.
On the day that the NPPF was published I could not see a great deal of difference between the draft and the final versions. Of course there were changes of emphasis and the default yes to development had been removed but it seems to me that the final NPPF is overwhelmingly about growth, albeit sustainable growth, and that the repeated references to economic growth trump almost every other element of the policy framework, as Andy Boddington from the CPRE has manfully pointed out. I also predicted that the countryside lobby would seek to save face by claiming victory and I was right. Articles like this and this appeared over the next few days. The Daily Telegraph, (whose laughable “Hands off our Land” campaign failed to garner the support of their sceptical readers) even had the chutzpah to claim that six changes to the final NPPF had been their doing, (it was their “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” moment). It was therefore rather strange to see Simon Heffer in The Mail simultaneously taking the polar opposite view. Is the countryisde about to be concreted over or have the evil developers been sent packing? You can buy your paper and take your choice it seems.
This deliberate or unintended misreading of the new framework may come back to haunt some of these commentators. I hope it does. The NPPF’s emphasis upon economic growth is borne out by a brilliant word count of the 50-page document carried out by Mike Galloway, a Lib Dem councillor for Wolverton in Milton Keynes, who has looked at both the draft and the final document. His analysis reveals that the most frequently used words in the final NPPF are as follows:
- Plan/Plans/Planned/Planning - 689
- Development - 385
- Local - 349
- Site/Sites - 146
- Home/Homes/House/Housing - 110
- Sustainable/ Sustainability - 113
- Environment/Environmental - 96
The word ‘countryside’ appears only seven times. Overwhelmingly, these most frequently used words relate to growth, development, planning and localism. Encouragingly, the word “housing” appears almost three times more in the final document over the draft. These words speak for themselves and I truly hope that they will count for something in the future.
‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,’ wrote Winston Churchill in 1943. I don’t think anyone would disagree that our built environment can influence behaviour and the quality of life, as theorists from Oscar Newman to the great Jane Jacobs have shown. But a recent report from RIBA, that received less attention than it deserved, should worry everyone involved in housing provision.
The Case for Space - The size of England’s new homes revealed that England is now building the smallest new homes in western Europe, and apart from being too small to swing a cat they are literally cramping our style, having a detrimental impact upon family life and harming the educational prospects of children who grow up in them.
The average floor space of homes in the UK is 85 square metres but for new homes this falls to 76 square metres. This compares to 88 square metres for new homes in Ireland (15 per cent bigger), 116 square metres in Holland (53 per cent bigger) and a staggering 137 square metres in Denmark (80 per cent bigger). According to RIBA’s survey, the top three things people look for when moving home are outside space (49 per cent), the size of the rooms (42 per cent), and closeness of local services (42 per cent). Almost a third of those questioned would not consider buying a home built in the last ten years, or would only consider it as a last resort. Of these, 60 per cent said it was because the rooms are too small. This is quite an indictment of planners and our house building industry.
Holland is twice as developed as England (20 per cent of its land area is built upon) yet their new homes are much larger. Why is this? The RIBA report sadly fails to analyse the culprits responsible for England’s tiny new homes, but in my view it is a clear consequence of our dysfunctional planning system and our failure to release enough land for housing.
Because of England’s restrictive planning regime we are already the most hemmed-in nation in Europe, with 90 per cent of us living in just 10 per cent of England’s area. European countries release far more land for development than we do. The Centre for Cities reports that Germany releases twice as much land for development pro-rata as the UK. As a consequence German house prices are 10 per cent lower in real terms than 30 years ago. By contrast, UK house prices have inflated in real terms (i.e. after inflation) by 273 per cent since 1959. If eggs had inflated at the same rate we would now be paying £18 for a dozen. This should be a cause for national debate and soul searching.
Land really is the solution to almost all the housing problems you can think of. By taking only a tiny proportion of additional greenfield land, just over 1 per cent of unprotected countryside, it would allow land values to fall and for the correct quantity and quality of new homes to be built, whether for sale or rent. This would help to eliminate our ludicrous £22 billion housing benefit bill and reduce significantly the demand for and the need for social housing.
This is why the argument about the National Planning Policy Framework is so critical and why it is so important that reactionary countryside campaigners do not dominate the debate. The transitional arrangements for the NPPF are due to be published this week and the revised document is promised shortly. I am keeping my fingers crossed that the government does not water down the original document.
During the debate on the draft national planning policy framework one of the key demands of the National Trust and other opponents has been that the old ‘brownfield first’ policy should be restored. I think that would be wrong, and here’s why.
If you recall, the last government set a target that 60 per cent of all new homes should be provided on brownfield sites. Until June 2010, back gardens were included in the definition of brownfield. As a result, up to 50 per cent of all new homes were built not on genuine brownfield sites but on back gardens. The results of this policy were disastrous – it pitted neighbour against neighbour, developers against neighbourhoods and led to mistrust, jealousy and rancour in communities up and down the country. It increased the density of residential areas (not always a bad thing), added to local traffic, and increased the level of water run-off.
According to the HCA there are 64,000 hectares of brownfield land in England – enough to build over two million homes, except that not all of the land is suitable for housing – for example some of the larger sites are former airfields in the middle of nowhere. However, most commentators accept that current and future brownfield land could accommodate perhaps two to three million new homes over the next twenty years. But because we need to build at least five million homes over this period (due to population and household growth) that still leaves two to three million new homes that would have to be built on greenfield sites.
So far so good. But the NPPF sets out a clear structure of local and neigbourhood plans that will allow local communities to identify the areas they want to protect and the areas they want to develop. In truth, most local plans will inevitably target brownfield sites for development but setting a top-down, national target for brownfield development would nullify the whole point of the localist approach. For example, communities may decide that a brownfield site on their patch has an amenity value in its own right – it may harbour wildlife, or preserve vistas, or they may want to turn it into an urban park or playspace or to extend an existing park. They may also decide that housing development would be best provided beyond the edge of the urban area on unaesthetic scrubland that is technically classified as countryside. The brownfield first policy would stop them taking such an approach. What’s more, the provisions in the NPPF for Neighbourhood Development Orders will allow parishes and neighbourhood forums to grant planning permission and to capture some of the uplift in land values (through the Community Infrastructure Levy) for the benefit of their own communities – to fund a new community centre, provide better street lighting etc. These orders will be a key tool in getting communities on side with the whole notion of local development. If they are forced to consider the brownfield sites first it takes away their right to plan in a creative and sustainable way and will make communities less likely to think positively about the needs of their areas.
Two of the key aims of the NPPF are (supposedly) to simplify the planning system, and put it back in the hands of the people. Whatever your political persuasion I think that’s worth defending. “Brownfield first” takes planning away from the people and puts it back into the hands of planning officers. It should be rejected.
I’ve always disliked the National Trust. I hate their twee, tacky giftshops and their bossy staff and the way they prissify and ossify our once-shaggy landed estates. But now my dislike has an additional justification - for the Trust’s campaign against proposed planning reforms in the draft National Policy Planning Framework is an utter disgrace.
Their website calls for the public’s support with these words: “Want to stand up for the everyday places you love? Support us in our opposition of government’s proposed planning reform by signing our petition.” The CPRE is no better, saying that, “the protection of precious countryside is going to be seriously weakened.”
This is hysterical tosh.
Reading this stuff would make you believe two falsehoods. One, that all of the land outside our towns and cities is precious and worth preserving at all costs, and two, that we live in a grossly overcrowded country, where the best parts of the countryside are about to be concreted over. In fact, the propaganda of the National Trust and the CPRE has obviously had an effect because Kate Barker commissioned a survey several years ago which showed that more than half the population believes that 50 percent of England is built upon. The true figure is around 10 percent and a significant proportion of that comprises parks and gardens. The Green Belt is 13 percent of our land and National Parks another 9 percent. In Holland, 20 percent of land is built upon.
The government’s sensible planning proposals, set out in the draft NPPF, mean that the Green Belt National Parks and areas of outstanding beauty will still be protected and local plans will protect those areas of landscape that local communities value. There will be a bigger emphasis upon community control of planning policies. If anything, the proposals are a charter for nimbysim. The biggest change is that, in the absence of a local plan or of national controls there will be a presumption in favour of development. And that makes sense. For too long our arcane planning system has hindered reasonable development. Kate Barker said we need 250,000 homes a year to restore balance to our housing markets – but we are building less than half of that figure. And more of these homes need to be the homes that people want – suburban houses with gardens close to existing towns and places of work. This means town extensions.
In Cambridge, where I live, 45,000 people have to jump the Green Belt every day, at great expense to their nerves and the environment, because the rigid planning girdle around the city has prevented development and forced house prices to ludicrous levels. Yet much of the Green Belt is marginal land that would benefit our economy and our environment if it were well developed. In fact, much our so-called precious countryside comprises chemical soaked fields that are inaccessible to the public. The bucolic vision of country life set out in The Archers (another pet hate!) is a myth. The average suburban garden contains much more wildlife than the average acre of countryside. The Royal Horticultural Society has described suburban gardens as “brilliant for wildlife.”
Even if every village in England agreed to build 20 new homes it would produce 135,000 homes. As David Orr says, “The absence of development is leading to the slow death of some villages as the school, the pub, the shop all close for the lack of the half a dozen new homes that would ensure young families can stay. New development in our towns and cities keeps the economy growing – and new mixed tenure, mixed income housing development in particular is critical for sustained economic growth.”
The Barbour brigade of the National Trust and the CPRE don’t appear to give a damn about affordable housing or the predicament of the millions of people in this country who cannot afford to buy or rent a home. Their selfish “I’m All Right Jack” attitude needs to be challenged. Tweet or write to your MP or ministers and tell them that you support their reforms to the planning system. It’s time to stand up for housing.
“The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs’ classic book on urban planning, is 50 years old this year.
I would recommend it to anyone who works in housing because it’s a seminal text on how cities and neighbourhoods should be run, and her ideas and observations are as fresh today as they were when it was first published.
The New York Times described it as “perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning.”
Jane Jacobs lived in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, a neighbourhood of dense irregular streets with a mix of cafes, bars and workshops that has always had a bohemian reputation. It’s where Bob Dylan headed for in January 1961 after he hitched to New York City from Minnesota and it’s where the abstract expressionists congregated in the fifties and sixties.
I suppose its London equivalent today would be Shoreditch and Hoxton. Jacobs was a great watcher. From her house on Hudson Street she observed the “ballet of the sidewalks”, the daily encounters and reciprocal transactions that make for successful city living. She highlighted the importance of dense neighbourhoods, with short blocks and a mixture of uses and she coined the phrase the “eyes on the street”. She said that even though the city is full of strangers, the busier the street is the safer it will be, so a dense network of inter-connected streets is much better than cul-de-sacs and unobserved, sterile areas. This is a view that conflicts with the work of later academics like Alice Coleman. Jacobs advocated the need for bottom-up planning and citizen empowerment. She also highlighted the importance of trust and reciprocity, the key components of social capital, and although the term had not been coined in 1961 she understood it instinctively.
Jacobs also fought some epic battles with Robert Moses, the unelected transport commissioner, known as the Baron Haussmann of New York, who drove freeways and major infrastructure projects through residential neighbourhoods, creating among other things the suburban nightmare that is Long Island. He wanted to extend Fifth Avenue southwards through the centre of Washington Square park, in the middle of Greenwich village, and build a cross-town elevated freeway to connect Brooklyn and New Jersey that would also have sliced through the Village. Jacobs fought both projects and won. You could call her a nimby but few would disagree that Manhattan is a better place because of her.
Earlier this year I went to Barcelona and stayed in an apartment in an area of busy narrow streets west of the Ramblas. It is a mixed neighbourhood, housing a diverse range of people with numerous small shops, bars and cafes, and would have been very recognizable to Jane Jacobs. Every morning the mechanical street washers made the place spotless. An all-day basketball game went on in the square below. It felt safe and civilized and Barcelona itself functions effectively – the transport system is clean and efficient, the traffic moves and the streets are clean. This made me think about the way cities are run and the fact that a majority of the world’s population are now urban dwellers. By 2030 an estimated 5 billion people will live in towns and cities. The way we run our cities is going to become critical to the future of the planet. I can’t think of a profession that will be more important in the future than the planning and management of cities. For this, Jane Jacobs has a lot to teach us.
A recent British Social Attitudes Survey published by DCLG (hat-tip Jules Birch) reveals some interesting attitudes to new housebuilding.
Nearly 3,000 people were interviewed in 2010. Nationally, only 28 percent of people supported more homes being built in their local area while 46 percent opposed it. But it is the variations that are interesting.
Around 46 percent of council and housing association tenants support newbuild in their area compared to just 23 percent of home owners, and older people are more likely to oppose house-building – 52 percent of those aged 65 and above were opposed compared to only 43 percent of those aged 18 to 34.
Only inner London (plus 17% percent) and the North East (plus 1 percent) have a positive net support for new homes, whereas Outer London (minus 33 percent) and Eastern England (minus 32 percent) have the lowest level of support for new homes.
When respondents who did not support new housebuilding in their area were asked to think about the advantages of new homes (employment, better transport, schools etc) 33 percent said that nothing would make them support new building.
This shows that the CIH, NHF and the house-building industry have a tremendous battle ahead of them if they are to convince the country of the benefits of house-building.
The provisions in the Localism Bill place greater emphasis upon local consultation and neighbourhood plans. To some, this is a green light to nimbys.
The CLG guide to the Bill states that, “Local communities would also be able to grant full or outline planning permission in areas where they most want to see new homes and businesses, making it easier and quicker for development to go ahead.”
But if communities don’t want new homes in the first place then it’s not going to happen! The Bill also abolishes the Infrastructure Planning Commission and places decisions about major planning decisions that are “important to our overall economy and society” in the hands of Ministers.
In Cambridge, where I live, work has started on 3,000 new homes around the fringes of the City. This growth is needed because Cambridge is at the heart of the nation’s biotech industries and without it the national economy will suffer, yet it’s not clear to me whether similar decisions in future will be left to local communities or to the Minister.
It’s highly unlikely that the people of Cambridge would have voted for growth, but sometimes governments have to govern in the national interest. The danger of the Localism Bill is that it presents Ministers with a brilliant cop out when tough decisions have to be made.
Like Pontius Pilate, they can wash their hands and say, “Nothing to do with me, we’ve given power to the people.” Frankly, I will believe it when I see it.