Framing the housing debate

Politicians, journalists and housing campaigners have an easy frame for the debate on building new homes: we have a housing crisis (true); therefore we need to shake-up the planning system, take on the NIMBYs, and release much more greenfield and Green Belt housing for housing (a big, unexamined leap in logic). Let me give a few examples from the countless I could use.

This week the Financial Times has run a series of reports on housing. On Monday it ran an analysis of why we are building too few homes under the headline ‘Planning obstacles leave hopes for housing boom on shaky foundations’. Leaving aside the question of why anyone should want a housing ‘boom’, what was striking about the article was how few of the reasons it gave for low housing output have anything to do with planning.

Among the problems listed were the dominance of the big house builders and the weakness of small firms; the shortage of supplies such as bricks; the failure to release public land for building, particularly brownfield land; and flaws in schemes such as the New Homes Bonus. Slow response times by local authority planning departments were criticised, but the remedy here is not to change planning policy, just to ensure that planners are able to do their jobs properly.  

The article quoted the chief executive of Cala Homes blaming the planning system for the housing crisis, but he would say that, wouldn’t he? Of course house builders want an easier planning system, but they are not disinterested commentators on housing policy any more than CPRE is.

The next day’s FT had a piece headlined: ‘Pressure mounts for more building on greenbelt land.’ Where does this pressure come from? Not from any analysis that the Green Belt is stopping us building the houses we need. Instead, the article quoted the head of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, who have form on the Green Belt, and the chief executive of Crest Nicholson who said: “The real way to boost housing supply is to allow local authorities to look at reassessing the greenbelt.”

It is no surprise that major house builders want to build in the Green Belt, but it is surely worth asking if they would build more homes in total if Green Belt land was released, or whether they would simply build in the Green Belt what they would otherwise have built within towns. For there is no evidence that the big house builders either want to increase their output significantly (they are recording very high profits without building many homes, and they remember the crash that followed the last boom) or that they are able to do so (material, skills and buyers’ access to finance are all in short supply).

Moving on from the FT, the excellent Shelter and KPMG report, Building the homes we need identifies (p. 32) four main causes of ‘England’s broken supply system’: the land supply system, the house building sector, investment in affordable housing, and building local consensus.

On planning and land supply it acknowledges (p. 35) that “although the planning system institutionalises the scarcity of land, and provides a political mechanism for allocating its use, planning is not in itself responsible for land being scarce. It is the other way around: all modern societies have some sort of land use planning system because land is inherently a scarce resource.” The section on planning reform (pp. 39-41) is very balanced and comes down against further major changes to the system.

The Green Belt is hardly mentioned in the section on problems, but greater flexibility on Green Belt boundaries and swaps are among the report’s proposed solutions (pp. 88-89). All this is expressed in very reasonable terms, but it reads as if the solution – tackle the Green Belt – was reached before the problem had been properly identified.

Finally, last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph led with the banner headline “New planning minister suggests Nimbys have had their day”. It reported that the proportion of people welcoming house building in their area has grown from 28% to 47% in three years. This is very welcome, as is the fact that we are beginning to build more homes (albeit too many on greenfield land when suitable brownfield land is being wasted).

But it is some leap for the new minister, Brandon Lewis, to credit the increase in house building to the Government’s planning reforms, rather than an improving economy, and to suggest that changing attitudes will get homes built. “The prospects for future development,” he says, “will not be decided by what we are currently building, but what people are currently thinking.” Well, up to a point. Public consent for house building is necessary if we are to build the homes the country needs. But it is far from sufficient.    

I do not blame Brandon Lewis for defending the Government’s legacy as the election approaches. However, if we are to have a serious public debate about how to solve the housing crisis we need to move on from glib assertions about NIMBYs stopping development or the need (unexamined) to build on the Green Belt. Planning is important, but it is not the most important thing. The fact is that our dysfunctional housing system will not deliver the homes the country needs without major structural reform and much greater public funding.      

 

4 Responses to “Framing the housing debate”


  1. 1 Tim Lund August 1, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Thanks. I certainly agree with these points you pick up from the KPMG / Shelter report:

    ‘“although the planning system institutionalises the scarcity of land, and provides a political mechanism for allocating its use, planning is not in itself responsible for land being scarce. It is the other way around: all modern societies have some sort of land use planning system because land is inherently a scarce resource.” The section on planning reform (pp. 39-41) is very balanced and comes down against further major changes to the system.’

    and

    ‘Building the homes we need identifies (p. 32) four main causes of ‘England’s broken supply system’: the land supply system, the house building sector, investment in affordable housing, and building local consensus.’

    But doesn’t that about ‘building local consensus’ amount to saying Nimbies are part of the problem, and with the first quote identifying how the planning process, so good in principle, can be used as a political weapon?

    And read page 48 of the report, elaborating on the problem of building local consensus, for an account of how over local political structures, which fail to reflect the economic role of big cities.

  2. 2 Neil Collins August 2, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Thank goodness we are at last seeing some balance in this debate! For too long, the orthodoxy that ‘we must build millions more houses’ has held sway. Can I also recommend the following piece from the Guardian as well: gu.com/p/3pd6q/tw, which also takes a very different slant on this issue. Thanks for the article!

  3. 3 andrew needham August 2, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    CPRE briefing on Green Belts (revised July 2014) gives advice.

    ‘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.’

    The University of the West of England is undertaking a research project on behalf of CPRE to examine the amount of brownfield land that may be available for development. Much of this is within the Green Belt.

  4. 4 Vincent Stops August 4, 2014 at 8:21 am

    There is no green belt in Hackney and its the third most dense LA area in the UK. Hackney has consistently outperformed its London Plan targets. Consistent good planning, good design, access and public realm; and public funding are all important.


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