The Housing White Paper: what the government should do

There will be much to welcome in this month’s Housing White Paper. We expect a big emphasis on brownfield development and more support to enable local authority planning departments to do their job. Best of all, the White Paper looks set to address the main cause of the housing shortage: not planning or a lack of land, but the system’s over-dependence on a dozen big companies to deliver the new homes the country needs.

For too long the state’s responsibility for decent housing has been outsourced to private developers who have neither the will nor capacity to build on the scale needed. Now at last Ministers seem willing to tackle this market failure, for instance by helping small builders and promoting custom build and ‘modern methods of construction’. Slow build-out rates and landbanking by developers may also be tackled. There could even be more money for social housing and greater scope for councils to build homes again.

But we will not see a return to the scale of pre-1979 public house building. This is a pity because short of a Harold Macmillan-style building programme, there will be no quick increase in output. The Government is therefore stuck with a policy of setting housing targets[1] and making more land available in the hope that developers increase their output. This approach has failed for years and it will continue to fail.

Not only does the policy not deliver more houses; unachievable targets make planning a battlefield, rather than a way of improving the country for everyone’s benefit.

Most people now accept that we need to build more homes. Too many people live in insecure, over-expensive accommodation: something must be done. Most would also agree this will involve some new housing on greenfield land.

So Ministers have a chance in the White Paper to build a broad national consensus in support of more and better house building. But it will get things badly wrong if it does not address concerns about how the current system is failing. Inflated targets, particularly in ‘high demand’ areas, have made planning toxic. Continue reading ‘The Housing White Paper: what the government should do’

Heathrow and the ‘just about managing’ places

This article appears in the Winter 2016 edition of the Fabian Society’s magazine, Fabian Review.

Everyone wants to rebalance the UK economy, to generate jobs and growth in the parts of the country that need them most. Or at least they are keen in theory and when they are making speeches about it. But in reality, public money is poured into the wealthiest, most vibrant parts of the country regardless of the cost to places that are (to coin a phrase) ‘just about managing’.

And even when efforts are made to support parts of the country that are struggling, they are undermined because even more is done to stoke growth in places that already doing well. The thinking seems to be that firms want to invest in booming areas; people want to live there (of course they do – that is where the jobs are); and that it is the job of government to anticipate and accommodate this growth.

So predict and provide rules the day, whether in transport (build more roads to meet demand), housing (build homes ‘where people want to live’) or economic development (create more jobs where there are already jobs).

All this, we are told, helps ‘UK plc’. But UK plc does not exist; it is a slogan, a category mistake. In reality, as has been endlessly discussed since Brexit, a growing economy does not necessarily benefit all parts of the country, and the places left behind may actively resent those that are doing well. Continue reading ‘Heathrow and the ‘just about managing’ places’

1300 lost villages

Here is my latest Countryman column.

It is sometimes hard to separate our love of all things countryside from our propensity for nostalgia.

Perhaps this is because while most of us now live in towns and cities, we came from the countryside, however many generations back. Or perhaps it is because it is pleasanter to think of the milk maids of Hardy’s Wessex or a picturesque old windmill than a modern milking shed or wind turbine.

But another reason may be our sense that countryside is disappearing quite rapidly. Continue reading ‘1300 lost villages’

Housing for town and country

Here is my column from the December issue of the Countryman, available in all good newsagents.

Two recent conversations captured for me, the good and bad sides of the housing debate.

First, I was chatting to a woman hoping to move with her young family from a large town to the sort of village in which she grew up. But almost every village she looks at is facing proposals to double in size in the next few years. “We don’t want to move somewhere that never changes or grows,” she says, “but they’re planning to destroy what makes these places special.”

These are villages where the local authority is deemed not to have an up to date local plan or an adequate supply of land for housing. Developers circle them with proposals for new estates knowing that they will be hard to turn down. This is not an accident of policy. It is England’s planning policy in 2016. And it is leading to angry resistance across the shires. Continue reading ‘Housing for town and country’

How to intensify the housing crisis

Tomorrow the Government will decide how it plans to intensify the housing crisis in the south-east and usher in more strife over house building. In other words, it is going to decide whether it favours expanding Heathrow, Gatwick or both.

The justification for airport expansion in the south-east is largely economic. Both airports have spent astonishing amounts of money lobbying MPs and others.[1] Heathrow, we are told, will add £211 billion to the UK economy by 2050 and create 80,000 new jobs in London and the South East. Gatwick’s backers claim a second runway “will generate 21,000 jobs at the airport, as well as indirect and catalytic employment” in “places such as” Croydon, Hastings and Brighton, i.e. across a pretty wide area.

This is investment that could help rebalance the UK’s economy, already skewed to the southern counties of England. These are jobs that could be created in the places that need them most, where there is more space within existing towns and cities to accommodate the workers. Continue reading ‘How to intensify the housing crisis’

Custom build in Holland: lessons for the UK

“Don’t let the developers near. They won’t develop.” That was the advice given to British planners in 2009 by Wulf Daseking, Freiburg’s chief planner for nearly 30 years.[1]

One way to speed things up and improve quality is custom and self-build housing, which puts the buyer in control of the development. The sector accounts for some 60% of new homes in France, around 80% in Austria. In Britain, it contributes only around 12-14,000 new homes a year, but it is attracting growing interest from politicians. So I was pleased to join a two-day visit to Amsterdam hosted by Igloo Regeneration to get a better idea of how it works.

Our first afternoon was spent in Almere, a new city 25 kilometres out of Amsterdam. Continue reading ‘Custom build in Holland: lessons for the UK’

Building near Green Belt stations

It is rumoured that the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid set to announce a serious investment in house building and the infrastructure to go with it, with a strong emphasis on brownfield development. This is very welcome. But the Daily Mail’s suggestion that he will announce “enhanced planning powers to allow construction of houses and apartments on land, much of it derelict around railway stations especially in the South East” raises concern about the integrity of the Green Belt.

The principle of building around transport hubs is a good one and was supported in a recent CPRE report, Making the Link. But the Communities Secretary should beware of the idea that simply building around Green Belt stations in the Green Belt is an unproblematic way to solve the housing crisis. This has been energetically proposed by various enemies of the Green Belt and the planning system (step forward the Adam Smith Institute). The argument against is put briefly in CPRE’s Green Belt myth-buster. I have copied the relevant passage below.

In brief, building around Green Belt stations could be incompatible with key purposes of the Green Belt, preventing sprawl and stopping places merging together. Continue reading ‘Building near Green Belt stations’


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