Archive for December, 2013

A cheer for the Lyons Review. But not three cheers.

Sir Michael Lyons has been asked by the Labour Party to consider how to overcome the structural barriers standing in the way of building many more new houses.   

Usually when barriers to house building are considered, politicians and commentators get no further than the planning system.  They ignore two more important barriers: the nature of the UK housing market, particularly the house building industry; and the issue of consent, the small matter in a democracy of getting enough people to agree to new development to make it politically viable.

The Lyons Housing Review will consider not only planning but the nature of the housing market, which is refreshing and worth a cheer.  But its terms of reference and the makeup of its expert panel suggest no desire to hear the concerns that many decent people of all political persuasions have about accepting new housing in the places they love (or, if you prefer, their ‘backyards’).  Advance notice of Ed Miliband’s speech today supporting a ‘right’ of towns to expand into the Green Belt in spite of the concerns of neighbouring local authorities and the people who live in them, is part of the same narrative

Sir Michael’s expert panel is full of admirable people, but almost all of them are in the business of building houses or promoting house building.  That is understandable given the review’s aim of finding ways to achieve a step change in house building.  But Labour had this aspiration when it was in government and it failed. 

In part this was because it could not persuade people that decisions on housing (based on regionally imposed targets) had democratic legitimacy, and because those faced with new housing on their doorstep assumed it would make the places they cared about much less attractive, and therefore fought it.  Setting up a review that excludes the voices of those who care as much about place as about development is a mistake.

Of course, I understand why developers and politicians often regard opposition to house building as selfish NIMBYism.  There are NIMBYs, and some of them may be selfish.  But I know that CPRE branches, civic societies, amenity groups and ad hoc ‘save our village’ campaign groups are also full of decent people – pillars of the church who support Crisis or Shelter and worry about where their children or grandchildren are going to live, but who also worry that any new development will be full of small and ugly houses, destroy green space, clog roads and strain local services etc. etc. 

If the Lyons Review does not take these concerns more seriously, it will not achieve its aims.  You can come up with the finest technocratic solutions to the housing crisis imaginable – new financial models, further planning reforms, perfect templates for New Towns and garden cities – but they will be worth nothing if you cannot carry people with you. 

I hope my concerns are misplaced.  Hilary Benn, the Shadow Communities Secretary has repeatedly emphasised that consent is essential to getting enough houses built, and we had a good dialogue with Jack Dromey when he was Shadow Housing Minister.  But the Lyons Commission’s call for evidence is not encouraging.      




The advice the PM is getting on planning

As we get nearer the General Election, civil servants are being cleared out of Downing Street and replaced with party political special advisers.  The appointment of Policy Exchange’s Alex Morton as the Prime Minister’s adviser on housing and planning is, to say the least, interesting. 

Policy Exchange is to this government as the IPPR was to New Labour.  The appointment recently of a Policy Exchange trustee as Chair of Natural England was par for the course.  Personally I look forward to working with Andrew Sells and reject the implication that donating lots of money to the Conservative Party helps in appointments of this sort.    

But I am worried that he will have imbibed the breezy Policy Exchange line that there is lots of countryside out there, much of it rather drab, and it does not matter much if we build on it because there will still be lots left.  It is worrying enough that Policy Exchange’s founder Nick Boles, the Planning Minister, sometimes sounds as he thinks like this, but that is understandable as his main priority is to get lots of houses built, and never mind the collateral damage.  But if the Chair of the national body that exists to champion the landscape and natural environment also thinks like this, we really have our work cut out.

What of Alex Morton?  He has been a prolific and influential researcher for Policy Exchange.  He has also been very willing to engage with CPRE.  A month or so ago I debated with him at a CPRE meeting in Surrey, alongside a great defender of the Green Belt, Crispin Blunt MP, and we found a few things on which we could agree.

But no one should be under any illusion that his appointment is deeply worrying for all who care about the countryside, or indeed the planning system. Continue reading ‘The advice the PM is getting on planning’