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.      




6 Responses to “A cheer for the Lyons Review. But not three cheers.”

  1. 1 Tim Lund December 16, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    I too would naturally question anything put forward as “the finest technocratic solutions to the housing crisis imaginable”, but CPRE urgently needs to communicate solutions which will carry people with them.

    Ed Miliband’s speech referred to Oxford as a local authority which could be given permission to build in a neighbouring authority’s back yard. An irony here is that CPRE Oxfordshire has been campaiging vigorously recently against a development within Oxford, with excellent public transport links.

    My daughter, who lives in Oxford, recently did some professional work experience. However, the offices were somewhere on an industrial estate in Didcot, with an infrequent bus service. Should she choose to make a career of it there, for the first time in her life she would think about becoming a car driver.

    CPRE need to artuculate its vision of higher urban densities, and not allow its practice to tend towards opposing everything. Otherwise it is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    • 2 Helen Marshall, CPRE Oxfordshire December 18, 2013 at 10:42 am

      Tim – I am not quite sure which CPRE Oxfordshire campaign you are referring to? We acknowledge the need for more housing at a sensible density, in the right location. For example, we have been broadly supportive of the development of over 1,000 houses in the Barton area of the city. It is of course the way of the world, but positive statements just don’t get the same coverage/acknowledgement that opposition to inappropriate development receives. So I agree we need to work as hard as we can to get across our broader vision.

      Oxford City Council has a long-stated ambition to expand into the Green Belt to the south of the City. Having not managed to do it under existing rules, it is now exploring every other possible route including the proposed Oxford City Deal and now this ‘Right to Grow’ idea. The City is not an unbiased player – as a major landowner in the area, it has a significant short-term financial incentive to develop, threatening to overwhelm longer term environmental considerations. Such a move would completely undermine the point of the Green Belt as a permanent and open protection for both surrounding villages and the historic setting of the City itself. It also threatens local democracy.

  2. 3 colin wiles (@colinwiles) December 17, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Shaun – your frequent references to “democracy” and “people” are misleading. We all know that those who engage in the planning process – and particularly those who oppose new homes – tend to be elderly homeowners, usually white and well off. This is the real democratic deficit in our planning system – how can sensible and objective decisions about new homes be made without a vocal and often hysterical minority holding us to ransom?

    An example: in Cambridge the published local plan proposes that 14 hectares of green belt land at Worts Causeway (close to Addenbrookes) should take new homes. Neighbours (whose homes, built within the past 60 years, look out over open fields) have launched a campaign to “Save the Green Belt”, even though this development represents a tiny, tiny fraction of the 26,340 hectares of the Cambridge Green belt (which is 6.5 times larger than the built up area of Cambridge itself.) It would be like a campaign to “Save Hyde Park” when just 75 square metres of 142 hectares is to be built upon (do the maths). As a result of this vocal campaign a retail area in my ward is to have its density increased from 35 to 75 dph, even though the population of this inner city ward has increased significantly and services are under pressure. This is the consequence of NIMBYism (not a word I like) – “Save the Green Belt” is hysterical scaremongering, yet supported by the CPRE. The difference is that people near me want new homes, the people at Worts’ Causeway want none. The CPRE needs to be more honest about this country’s housing needs and set out where and how new homes will be provided. There is simply not enough brownfield land and green belts create unsustainable levels of commuting, as Tim points out above. Opposition to all development, without offering solutions, is not credible.

  3. 4 andrew needham December 17, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    CPRE Charter says that ‘we recognise that everyone is entitled to live in a decent home that they can afford’.

    CPRE Campaign briefing on Green Belts suggests – ‘Influencing local plans so that as little Green Belt land as necessary is released for development. You can make the case that, as Green Belt boundaries should only be altered in ‘exceptional circumstances’, no more than one or two sites should be released for development. It can be helpful to evaluate the cumulative effects of any proposed changes on the overall openness and integrity of the Green Belt, as well as assessing the five purposes individually.’

    Andrew Needham

  4. 5 Michael Monk December 18, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Colin Wiles’ comments on the Cambridge Green Belt are a little wide of the mark. This is the smallest green belt in England, and crucially has a key role to play in protecting the historic character of the city and maintaining its setting. It is this very character which attracts businesses and investment into Cambridgeshire. Far from being negative CPRE Cambridgeshire supported the last review of the green belt which would enable Cambridge to grow by 40%. But – enough is enough in terms of both timing (it is only a few years since that last major review) and the scale and location of the land proposed to be taken now. CPRE opposes the loss of these sites as they have been evaluated as of critical importance to the purposes of the green belt – alongside the Wildlife Trust who object on the grounds appropriate to their cause. We should not confuse the identity of objectors with the principles at stake here. nor should we think that because the sites are a small proportion of the total they do not matter. It is this inner part of the green belt which is most valuable in the terms of the function of the green belt and, of course, is also the most accessible to the people of Cambridge.

  5. 6 colin wiles (@colinwiles) December 18, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Michael – those two sites are barely accessible to anyone. The main objections are from those whose views over open land will be affected, but that’s life. All of us who live in towns and cities live on land that was once greenfield. Meanwhile on the northern fringe of Cambridge so-called green belt land is scuzzy scrubland occupied by a few depressed looking horses, when a few feet away thousands of often stationary commuters on the A14 have to “jump” the green belt every day. 40,000 people daily have to drive and train from beyond the green belt to get into Cambridge. A considerable proportion of the Cambridge green belt has little amenity, wildlife or public access value – it merely serves to cram more and more people into an overcrowded city. It’s not sustainable and it cannot last.

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