The campaign to imprison urban England?

Update: I owe the letters editor of the FT an apology.  My letter is in today’s paper, so I’m reposting my last blog, minus the moan that ‘CPRE doesn’t have a great record of getting letters in the FT‘.  I have added an ‘afterword’, with the text of the letter in today’s Times from Peter Waine, CPRE’s Chair.  It makes similar points.

Both letters state that there is enough brownfield land available for at least 1.5 million new homes, including 400,000 in London.  The evidence is in Building in a small island, a report produced a couple of years ago for CPRE by Green Balance.  At a fringe meeting at Conservative Party Conference, Nick Boles said the report was based on poor research, out-of-date figures etc.  He got quite heated, but I am not aware what evidence he has for that view and we stand by the report.  The figures are probably an underestimate because official statistics, to the extent that they are still collected, exclude micro-sites.  See Untapped potential for more on sites of this sort.

Here is my original blog post, followed by Peter’s letter in the Times.

On Friday, the great Martin Wolf wrote a column in the Financial Times saying various sensible things about housing.  He criticised the Help to Buy scheme for ‘helping those who wish to keep housing costly: today’s owners, banks and housebuilders.  The government is strengthening a conspiracy to keep house prices exorbitant….  As a way of solving the problem posed by high prices in the prosperous regions of Britain, a policy of increasing demand is absurd.  It may increase supply a little, but only by raising prices still higher than they would otherwise be.’

So far, so good, but Wolf’s solution is simply to ‘make a large quantity of land available for development and impose a swingeing site value tax, to compel building’.  This, he says, would be opposed not only by housebuilders sitting on land banks, but also by CPRE, ‘the Campaign for the Imprisonment of Urban England’.

I have had a civilised exchange of emails with Martin Wolf, and though I doubt we agree about whether it is necessary to build large numbers of houses in the countryside, I hope he realises that CPRE is not in denial about the country’s need to build many more homes than we currently are.

Martin Wolf’s suggestion that CPRE is standing in the way of the house building the country needs is baseless.  It is not only that, regrettably, we are not as powerful as he seems to think.  It is also the case that we have, for years, been advocating a big increase in house building, including the building of affordable homes in villages.  Indeed, almost every week I receive angry letters complaining about housing developments that CPRE branches have supported. 

Of course CPRE is not going to advocate releasing lots more greenfield land for housing.  We will keep on making the case for building first on suitable brownfield land – there is enough for at least 1.5 million homes, including 400,000 in London – which will save countryside and help regenerate our towns and cities.  We are, after all, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and it is our job to safeguard England’s countryside. 

But the problem is not land; there is plenty available.  What Mr Wolf does not address is the question of who is going to build the homes we need.  There is no evidence that the major house builders are either willing or able to build on the scale needed.  Nick Boles the Planning Minister thinks that if you release more greenfield land, they will build more houses, but the evidence is that they will build the same number of houses (the number the market will support) but on greenfield instead of brownfield land.  If you doubt this, look at the annual reports of the major house builders setting out their priorities.  Taylor Wimpey’s is typical: ‘We continue to prioritise both short and long term margin performance ahead of volume growth.  Increasing the contribution per plot is a key driver to continuing this priority.’       

Our historic undersupply is one of the reasons we have excessively high house prices in Britain, but it is not the only reason.  We need a sensible conversation about how the country can break its addiction to high property prices, but throwing insults at those who want to build more houses while minimising the loss of countryside is not a good place to start.   

The quotation from Taylor Wimpey’s annual report comes from a Shelter report, Solutions for the housing shortage.  Redrow list their three ‘key strategic priorities’ as increasing margins, raising the average selling price of their houses, and maintaining the quality of their land bank.  Persimmon say: ‘Our strategy is to continue to optimise the scale of our landbank to a size that supports the level of trading achievable within the current market’.

Why does anyone expect the major housebuilders to increase their output significantly, particularly if the purpose of doing so is to bring down house prices and, er, profits?

A final word on Help to Buy should go to the MD of the removal company, Bishop’s Move.  In a letter to the Guardian, he said of Help to Buy: ‘It’s a fantastic scheme and one which we, and our peers, were glad to see introduced.  Bring on a housing boom and let’s get Britain moving once again….  All in all, this could be the start of an exciting period for the property industry.’  I don’t think the letter was a spoof.

Afterword: Peter Waine’s letter in today’s Times.

John McTernan is right to condemn successive governments for colluding in rising property prices, and to criticise the Help to Buy scheme for further stoking house prices (Opinion, 14 October).  But his prescription – trash the Green Belt and build over farmland – is not only deeply philistine: it is half-baked.

Inadequate supply is not the only reason for high house prices.  Changes to the tax system could burst the property bubble in no time – but they might not be politically popular.

We need more homes, but there is enough suitable brownfield land in existing towns and cities to build at least 1.5 million new homes, including 400,000 in London, and the stock of brownfield land is constantly rising.  We will need to build on some greenfield sites, but let’s give priority to development that will aid urban regeneration.

John McTernan clearly doesn’t worry about food security and he doesn’t appear to much like the English countryside, but it is an important part of our national identity.  We do not need to sacrifice it to solve the housing crisis.

2 Responses to “The campaign to imprison urban England?”

  1. 1 Wyrdtimes (@Wyrdtimes) October 15, 2013 at 9:02 am

    So, still no acknowledgement that the real problem is the UK parliament’s extended policy of mass mass-immigration into almost exclusively England then.

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