All posts from: October 2011
I have to hand it to the National Trust for running an exemplary campaign against the draft National Planning Policy Framework. They wrote to every one of their 4 million members and issued hundreds of daily appeals and tweets during the three months of the consultation period. They effectively hijacked the debate on planning and their backers in the right-wing press, mainly the Mail and the Telegraph, banged the drum on their behalf. By contrast, supporters of the NPPF like the Home Builders Federation, the CIH, the NFU, the CLA and the NHF were relatively silent. Yet at the end of it all the Trust obtained the signatures of just 4 per cent of their members, a paltry 200,000 signatures, for their oxymoronic “Planning for People” petition.
So lots of sound and fury but not signifying very much. Government ministers have not backed down on the broad thrust of the NPPF and although the NPPF only applies to England David Cameron has pledged to protect the “beautiful British landscape” from development (which presumably means that the less than beautiful parts of the landscape will not be protected!)
So far so good for developers and those in housing need.
But the failure of the Trust’s tub-thumping shows that the planning process remains a remote and alien concept for most people. It is because the planning system is hard to understand (it is something that is done to us rather than by us) that the National Trust had to resort to scaremongering tactics to agitate their members. They repeatedly used images of ancient woodland and rolling countryside in their propaganda as if these areas were at risk from development, when clearly they are not. They know very well that if they had instead told the truth and said: “We need to build 5 million homes over the next twenty years and this may mean building on about 1% of the unprotected, and therefore not particularly attractive scrubland that surrounds our towns and cities” they would have garnered even less support.
This view of planning being the preserve of an elite is reflected in a recent poll of 416 local government councillors, carried out by ComRes. 64 per cent of them felt there was a lack of robust evidence of public opinion in planning discussions, and 75 per cent of councillors believe that the “silent majority” is excluded from debate about planning issues. The silent majority was defined as those who are “perhaps likely to benefit from new homes or use the facilities provided by development, but are less likely to participate in the planning process than the more vocal minority, who can object vigorously to proposals”.
The real tragedy of the NPPF consultation process is that the countryside has dominated the debate. Why has this been allowed to happen? Planning is overwhelmingly about cities. 90% of us live in towns and cities and the future of our planet depends upon the sustainability and success of city living. For the vast majority of people the issues that pre-occupy them are urban issues – the quality of life in their neighbourhoods, the trains and roads that will get them to work, the quality and affordability of their housing, the quality of local services like schools, healthcare, parks and open spaces. Most people have little interest in the countryside, and as the National Trust has itself said, many people are wary of venturing too far into the countryside for fear of encountering a “No Trespassers” sign or an angry farmer. The Withnail and I view of the countryside resonates with many urban dwellers.
The NPPF’s presumption in favour of sustainable development was the issue that engendered such a knicker-twisting frenzy within the National Trust. Yet amidst all this hysteria the many positive aspects of the NPPF have been ignored. These include: the clear structure of local and neighbourhood plans; the potential for planning to become a genuinely participative and democratic process; the potential for neighbourhood development orders to give communities real power and influence over planning decisions and to capture the benefits of development for their own area; the chance to build the number of new homes we need, at last; the opportunities to green our cities, to make them more vibrant and provide sustainable transport systems.
All of this has been lost in what I consider to be a selfish and self-obsessed countryside campaign. It is interesting that bodies who really understand the countryside, like the NFU and the CLA, support the NPPF. They know that the countryside has to change and develop if it is not to stagnate.
I think it is time for the National Trust and their supporters to pipe down for a while and allow the silent majority, the town and city dwellers who have the most to gain from the NPPF, to have their say.
Two days ago the BBC published “Eight radical solutions to the housing crisis”. They were:
1. Encourage the elderly out of big houses
2. Freestyle planning
3. Contain population growth
4. Force landlords to sell or let empty properties
5. Ban second homes
6. Guarantee mortgage payments (i.e. force the banks to lend)
7. Live with extended family
8. Build more council homes
It’s an interesting list, although the suggestion that “building more council homes” is seen as radical will have Harold Macmillan and Aneurin Bevan spinning in their graves!
Here is my quick take on the rest of it.
Number 1 is Stalinist and would upset middle England.
Short of re-negotiating the Treaty of Rome or introducing compulsory euthanasia Number 3 is a non-starter. Much of the projected growth in population is down to people living longer. The rest (about 44%) is due to in-migration, mostly from the European Union, which we are powerless to stop. This is the issue that most excites letter writers to the Daily Mail and Telegraph: in fact most of the comments in their pages during the NPPF debate focussed on immigration control as a way of solving all our problems, not just the housing crisis. Don’t go there.
Number 4 – fine, but local authorities already have powers to deal with long-term empty properties.
Number 5 is a non starter- most peers and MPs have second homes and they are hardly likely to vote for a ban. Introducing fiscal disincentives to second-home ownership is one option, but it could penalise the poor – what about families who’ve owned a chalet in Clacton for decades?
Number 7 is happening already (the average age of a first time buyer is 37) and is bound to get worse. It’s market-driven and not something you can legislate for.
That leaves numbers 2 and 6, which are to some extent two sides of the same coin. “Freestyle planning” is a clumsy description of the draft National Planning Policy Framework, and reflects the largely successful scaremongering anti-campaign run by the National Trust and others.
As I’ve argued before, we need to build at least 5 million homes over the next twenty years to catch up with under-supply and population growth, but this means building on little more than one per cent of the unprotected countryside of England (and remember that 45 percent of England’s land area is protected).
The price of land is a significant element in the price of any house – up to 50% or more in some areas. More land means lower land prices, means lower house prices. It’s a simple equation isn’t it?
Lower house prices will lead to a more balanced mortgage market which will allow more first-time buyers to borrow. One of the key arguments made against the NPPF has been the outstanding number of planning permissions - about 300,000.
Apart from the fact that this is not much more than a year’s supply of homes, the mortgage drought is a short-term phenomenon. Banks are building up their balance sheets after the crash and housebuilders won’t build if there is no demand, but they will start lending and building again before too long and if house prices are lower relative to incomes it means they will be able to build for and lend to more people.
That is why the NPPF is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore some of the balance in the housing market and, subject to some tweaking, it opens up the possibility of providing the much-needed affordable homes that we need.
So numbers 2 and 8 in the BBC list are the answer. Forget the rest. All the recent fluffy initiatives on right to buy, buy to let and under-occupation are just so much smoke and mirrors, designed to conceal the fabled elephant in the room - the fact that housebuilding is at its lowest level since 1923.
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.
Is a modern version of the Window Tax about to return to England?
In this week’s House of Lords Welfare Reform debate Lord Foulkes of Cumnock raised the possibility that under-occupying tenants could evade a cut in their housing benefit by blocking up the windows of spare bedrooms.
This has echoes of the Window Tax, introduced in England in 1696 and not repealed until 1851.
It was a tax on wealth, and it was banded so the cost per window was greater the more windows you had. In 1747 you paid 6 old pence per window for ten to fourteen windows and 1 shilling per window if you had twenty or more.
Many householders simply bricked up their windows as a way of avoiding the tax, and the results can still be seen on Georgian houses in all our major towns and cities.
New houses were also built with fewer windows, such that the production of glass in 1851 was the same as in 1810, even though thousands more homes were being built.
The phrase “daylight robbery” allegedly comes from the Window Tax.
The Welfare Reform Bill proposes that any tenant of working age who is under-occupying their home should receive a cut in benefit.
According to the CLG this applies to 2 or more excess bedrooms, 1 or more if you read the DWP advice.
The DWP impact assessment also describes the cut in benefit as an “incentive” to tenants to move to smaller accommodation, which is one of the strangest uses of the word “incentive” I have ever seen.
As we all know, moving to smaller accommodation is not the easiest thing to achieve and many people under-occupy for very good reasons – partners have medical reasons which force them to sleep apart, or they have peripatetic children or guests who frequently come to stay.
But as far as I am aware, a room with no natural light is not classed as habitable, so this ruse could be as successful as it was for those who evaded the Window Tax, although landlords would need to give their consent to such an “improvement.”
The Minister, Lord Freud responded to the idea with scorn: “The coalition Government, my Lords, are not Queen Anne and we will resist any of those blocked up windows, which still blight many villages and which I know the noble Lord is very concerned about.
”This debate mirrors the report that was published this week by the Intergenerational Foundation which accuses older homeowners of “hoarding” 25 million empty bedrooms.
I’m rather opposed to this Property Police attempt to snoop on our personal living arrangements and to force us to move to smaller accommodation.
People generally occupy the size of property they want or need and to make them feel guilty about it is the start of a slippery slope that has a rather Soviet feel to it.
It also disguises the real issue, which is that housebuilding is at its lowest level since 1923.
Consultation on the draft National Planning Policy framework ended yesterday. The document, which aims to reduce 1,000 pages of planning policy into a mere 52 pages, has been attacked by environmentalists because it allows a presumption in favour of sustainable development where local plans do not exist or are silent, and because it ends the current brownfield first policy.
The past three months has seen one of the most intense and polarised public debates of recent times. On one side we had the National Trust leading the charge on behalf of the Ian Paisley school of planning (No! No! No!) pitted against the government and the Home Builder’s Federation on the other. It’s been full of sound and fury but does it signify anything?
The National Trust dominated the debate, and ran an impressive, albeit scaremongering, campaign, writing to every one of its 4 million members and tweeting up to 100 times a day to rally their troops. Supporters of the NPPF, including the CIH and the NHF, were strangely silent. Yet after three months of hard campaigning the Trust could only muster 200,000 signatures for their oxymoronic “Planning for People” Campaign – just 5% of their members. For me, this highlights the fact that planning has become detached from the people. Few of us understand the complexities of our planning system. Yet everyone knows what good and bad planning looks like. On this basis I think the noble aim of the NPPF, to simplify planning policy, is absolutely right.
The National Trust’s campaign also skated over the fact that the NPPF will retain existing protections of the green belt, the national parks, SSSIs and Areas of Outstanding National Beauty – and these represent 45% of England’s area. Only 9% of England is built upon and half of that is parks and back gardens, which often harbour more wildlife than the surrounding countryside.
In last week’s House of Lords debate one of the best contributions was made by Richard Rogers, who said:
“I believe the only sustainable form of development is the compact, polycentric city, which is well-connected and encourages walking and the use of public transport, where public spaces and buildings are well-designed and the poor and rich can live in close proximity. The intensification of existing settlements is economically efficient because it optimises the use of existing infrastructure and the embedded energy within schools, hospitals, roads and homes. Cities such as Vancouver, Portland, New York, especially Manhattan, and compact European cities are more than five times as energy efficient as sprawling cities such as Detroit, Phoenix and Los Angeles.”
Few people could disagree with that and the argument against sprawl is well made. I agree also with Boris Johnson who spoke at the Tory conference about putting the village back into the city, creating neighbourhoods, growing urban food, encouraging people to walk and cycle to work, building social capital and reducing the use of energy. The future of the planet depends upon the success of cities. But Rogers ignores some simple mathematics. Our population is set to grow significantly over the next few decades. Nearly six million new households will form by 2033, meaning we have to build at least 5 million new homes over the next 20 years. At most, brownfield land can only accommodate 2 million new homes, which means we will need to extend our towns and cities into the countryside and build new settlements to accommodate the remaining 3 million. But even these 3 million new homes will only take up little more than 1 percent of the remaining countryside that is unprotected, and we are talking here about the grotty scrubland that often surrounds many of our towns and cities, not the best landscape by any means. So the National Trust’s claims of “concreting over the countryside” are disingenuous and misleading.
It is this long-term growth issue that has been completely ignored by the National Trust and the CPRE during this campaign. I pressed them repeatedly to reveal their policies on the need for long-term housing growth and they repeatedly avoided the issue.
The NPPF is not perfect. It needs tweaking. In particular, it needs to include targets and mechanisms for the provision of affordable housing, because a bottom up approach based on local needs alone will not provide the homes we need. How can a local assessment take into account in-migration and growth that is important to the national economy? But the NPPF is on the money for two key reasons. Firstly, its simplification and devolution of the planning system will bring planning back to the people. Secondly, the prospect of more land being released for housing means that this is the best opportunity in a generation to build the homes that we need in order to make housing affordable to the millions who are currently priced out of the market.
For those reasons I hope the government sticks to its guns and does not change the NPPF in any significant way.
In 1845 Benjamin Disraeli, wrote of, “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws … THE RICH AND THE POOR.”
Disraeli’s words, the foundation stone of One Nation Conservatism, hit me between the eyes when I read two contrasting reports in today’s papers. Today, the two nations of England, are the owners and the renters, (which you could argue is just about the same thing as the rich and the poor.)
Homeowners have never had it so good. Figures from the Council for Mortgage Lenders (in today’s Times) show that only 9.4 per cent of their income is now being spent on mortgages - the lowest since records began in 2002. Eight years ago this was around 15 per cent.
But for people who rent in the private sector times have never been tougher. According to Shelter (reported in today’s Guardian) families have now been priced out of a majority of local authorities in England, with average private rents being unaffordable for ordinary working families in 55% of local authorities. This means that in a majority of local authority areas rents now take up more than 33% of median take-home pay - a widely accepted measure of affordability. Shelter also found that 38% of families with children who were renting privately had cut down on food to pay their rent.
The number of tenants renting privately has increased by nearly a million over the past five years. This increased demand has pushed up rents. In London an average two-bed rent is £1,360, compared to an average across the country of £568. The least affordable local authority area outside London is Oxford, where typical rents account for 55% of average earnings.
With a lack of mortgage funding and house prices showing no signs of dropping to affordable levels, the outlook for first time buyers remains dire. The average age of first time buyers is now 37. Many young people are stuck with parents or in expensive private sector lets. By and large, the more money you spend on rent the poorer you get, whereas the less money you spend on your mortgage the richer you get. The gulf between the two housing nations is widening and deepening.
Yet with housebuilding at its lowest level since 1923 and neither Labour nor Conservative politicians offering up any radical housing policies it seems to me that we are entering a period of stagnation and retreat that will cause misery for millions and a deepening gulf between the haves and the have-nots. But this is what puzzles me. Where is the anger? Why aren’t young people, trapped with crippling rents and unable to buy, marching on the streets and occupying the City as they have on Wall Street USA? How can we ever be One Nation when there is such a gulf between the owners and the renters, between the haves and the have-nots? Perhaps, being English, this anger and resentment is bubbling beneath the surface and will erupt into social unrest at some point in the future.
Over the past few weeks I have been engaged in a twitter debate with the countryside campaigners who oppose the draft National Planning Policy Framework. Try as I might, I have been unable to extract from the National Trust and others their long-term policies on housebuilding and population growth. The fact that households are going to increase by nearly 6 million over the next twenty years means we will have to build at least 5 million new homes to meet demand and catch up with past under-supply. This exactly matches Kate Barker’s target of 250,000 a year. I am all in favour of dense, compact cities, but even if we build at high densities on existing and future brownfield land only two million of the required homes can be built within existing urban areas, leaving three million plots to be found on sites beyond the present urban fabric.
That is why I think the NPPF, for all its faults, is the greatest opportunity in a generation to deal with some of the deep-seated structural problems in our housing market. Yet those who oppose these sensible reforms seem to be oblivious to the scale and depth of the housing crisis. The National Trust’s disingenuous “Planning for People campaign” reminds me of Tom Lehrer’s comment that he gave up on satire when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. Speaking in today’s Lord’s debate Alan Howarth described the Trusts’s campaign as “a case study of the mischief that can be created by unscrupulous digital campaigning… Members of the National Trust, who are almost by definition responsible citizens with a deep commitment to the well-being of our country, must be embarrassed by the antics of their normally revered organisation.” Hear, Hear, I say to that.
But the NPPF debate has left me feeling deflated and depressed. To me, it seems like a classic case of the haves drawing up the drawbridge against the have-nots. Their blinkered “I’m All Right Jack” attitude echoes Disraeli’s notion of Two Nations, the haves and the have-nots, the owners and the renters, the rich and the poor, between whom there is “no intercourse and no sympathy”. Only if we can bridge the gap between these two nations, both financially and emotionally, will we begin to solve our housing problems.
In a nod towards Thatcherite populism, Grant Shapps has pledged to revive the Right to Buy and promised that every sale will be matched with a new affordable home. This may go down well in certain parts of the press, but how it will be achieved in practice is something of a puzzle. The Question and Answer document produced by CLG raises more questions than it answers, as does this blog.
Right to Buy sales last year stood at 3,960 in England compared to well over 150,000 at the height of the RTB boom in 1982. Clearly the only way to prompt more sales is significantly to increase the level of discounts. At present, these range from £22,000 to £38,000 depending on the region. Even if the discounts are doubled will this be enough to tempt buyers, given the drought of mortgage finance? Remember that there are now fewer council houses than housing association properties and the Right to Buy has a shrinking pool of potential purchasers.
But here is the puzzle. According to the government’s own figures the average market value of Local Authority properties sold under the right to buy in 2010/11 was £103,970. The average capital receipt was £77,470 and the average discount was £26,510 per property. But under current Treasury pooling rules 75 per cent of the capital receipt has to be returned to the Treasury for redistribution to receipt-poor areas. Any increase in discounts leads to a reduction in receipts. Let’s say the average receipt drops to £50,000 - that leaves only £12,500 to be re-invested in housing. Even under the affordable rents’ programme, which these receipts will be funding, the average level of grant is around £32,000 so how does a receipt of £12,500 build a new home?
This raises a whole series of questions. Is there to be another source of subsidy to ensure one home is built for every sale? Will Treasury rules be changed to allow for all of the receipt to be retained? Will receipts be ring fenced both to housing and to the local authority? Has the government carried out any financial modelling to see what level of discounts will generate sales?Lots of questions and few answers at this stage.Even if the number of sales increased tenfold, which seems optimistic to me, we would still only achieve fewer than 40,000 sales per annum, so where does Grant Shapps come up with the figure of 100,000 new homes every year?
Sorry to be cynical, but unless the Treasury is willing to relax the current rules on capital receipts this looks like another of those populist conference soundbites that will be quietly buried within a few months.