Stop caricaturing CPRE as a crude anti-development lobby: a response to Martin Wolf

Friday’s Financial Times had an article on housing by its chief economics correspondent, Martin Wolf. I have a great, but unrequited admiration for Martin Wolf. He has a good record on climate change and I agree with much of what he says on housing, particularly that we should look seriously at property taxation, and that the government should build more houses or subsidise others to build them.

But I do not agree with his apparent belief that if more greenfield land is released, housing supply will significantly increase, and I particularly object to the suggestion that CPRE is part of ‘a corrupt arrangement whose result is to benefit the haves at the expense of the have-nots’.

CPRE has consistently argued that housing should not be seen principally as an investment – see, for instance, our Vision for the countryside in 2026 – and we acknowledge that long-term undersupply is one reason, though not the only reason, for rising house prices. As I wrote in October 2013, also in a letter to the FT in response to Martin Wolf, I wrote: ‘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.   

My response to Martin Wolf’s article, printed in today’s FT, is below.  

I hesitate to criticise the great Martin Wolf, but his latest column (Britain’s Self-perpetuating property racket, 9 January) was not his finest.

Mr Wolf notes that housing output has fallen dramatically since the late 1960s. He acknowledges that in 1969-70 local councils built 185,000 dwellings, but blames today’s housing crisis largely on a shortage of land brought about by a baroque planning system and groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England – both of which existed when the country comfortably built more than 300,000 houses a year.

CPRE is indeed, in Mr Wolf’s words, a Campaign to Contain Urban England in that we do not want to see towns and cities unnecessarily sprawling into the countryside. The fact that England still has so much countryside should be a source of pride, not regret.

But we are unequivocal in our support for a big increase in house building, particularly by small and medium-sized builders, housing associations and local authorities. The big builders who now dominate the market have no interest in building the number of homes the country needs, however much land they are given. And the fact is that there is plenty of land available, particularly brownfield land, and plenty of land with planning permission that is not being developed. Land supply and planning are not the main problems.

Of course we should look at planning, but we must also consider how we tax housing (or fail to tax the capital gains on main residences); how the state funds social housing (or fails to fund it); the market failure of the house building industry; the quality of the houses and places we create (people oppose poor quality development); the infrastructure funding that comes with new housing (or doesn’t come) and a host of other things.

CPRE is up for a serious debate. Martin Wolf should stop caricaturing us a crude anti-development lobby.

8 Responses to “Stop caricaturing CPRE as a crude anti-development lobby: a response to Martin Wolf”


  1. 1 Arthur Franks January 12, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    I grew up in an era when home ownership was rare, and local authority housing was the primary aim for most people. Since 1980’s these house have been sold off and not replaced. People that used to be able to rent property at a realistic rent and save for a deposit, now have to rent privately at inflated prices, and never being able to save for a deposit, from the very people who are buying to rent and make a quick killing.
    Take some of the land banks from supermarkets to build residential properties and ensure they are a mix of smaller properties as well as the more profitable multi bedroom monsters.

  2. 2 oldbrock2014 January 12, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    There are less house builders now than there were before who are making large profits by not building so many houses. I do not blame them for this as it is simple economics that the less there is of something the higher price it commands. What is wrong is a tax and planning system that rewards developers for not building houses.
    There is a key issue that everyone keeps ignoring and that is the impact of the buy to let market on house prices. We have a rented sector that has a tax and regulatory frame work that is so out of date that it needs a top to bottom review. People are buying properties blind above the asking price to rent out in the sure knowledge that they will make money by charging sky high rents. I hate over regulation but surly the time has come to reintroduce some form of rent controls. Has anyone thought what will happen when generation rent retires?!
    Alex Hills

  3. 3 CPRE Local Supporter January 21, 2015 at 2:46 pm

    Unfortunately Martin Wolf’s article, published in the FT on 8 January 2015, is not available on-line to readers unless they pay a subscription (and the FT’s on-line subscription is not cheap). So what Shaun Spiers is responding to isn’t clear. His own piece (as included above) was printed in the FT on 11 January, but again can’t be read there. If the whole of it is as set out above, it is quite short, so only scratches the surface. Oldbrock14 (above) for example identifies an issue that the CPRE article in the FT doesn’t include.
    The statement that “we are unequivocal in our support for a big increase in house building” isn’t a view that most CPRE Branches or members would support and has not emerged from consultation within CPRE as a whole. It is an ex-cathedra statement by the Chief Executive.
    I doubt that there will be a ‘serious debate’ ! In fact none of the arguments are new, either way.

    • 4 sspiers January 21, 2015 at 3:19 pm

      My letter in the FT was as reprinted in my blog. I wanted to take over the entire letters page, but the Editor wouldn’t let me. So it is quite short.

      On the substance of whether I have authority to call for a big increase in house building, I have argued for this at virtually every CPRE meeting I have attended in the last few years, and there have been many. Only once, at a branch AGM in 2011, has anyone disagreed with that statement. There has been lots of vocal support. CPRE has also argued this in a number of reports and consultation responses. It is not a new position.

      The net addition to the housing stock in England in 2012-13 was less than 140,000, way below the level of household formation, as housing output has been for several years. Danny Dorling has argued that if we shared property and wealth much more equally in England, there might be no need for a big increase in house building, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

      I am not inclined to listen much to anonymous blog postings, even from someone styling themselves a CPRE supporter. I think you should say who you are.

      • 5 Lawrence January 28, 2015 at 9:03 pm

        A quick scan of CPRE press releases over the last few years doesn’t reveal a single one calling for revaluation of Council Tax, curbs on Buy-To-Let, support for any house building scheme, discussion of demographics in rural areas, etc…

        Also, when CPRE-fueled protestors are pictured in the local paper waving placards they’re inevitably singing from the “No to homes” and “Save the green belt” hymn sheet.

        So the casual observer and even the learned Mr Wolf could be forgiven for thinking the CPRE is purely an anti-homes lobby group.

        If you want to break free from that image I’m afraid you’ll have to educate, inform, and most importantly, upset your members and followers.

        If no further encroachment into the countryside is their demand, the price to be paid is they themselves need to clear out, downsize, free up empty bedrooms, pay higher property taxes and see their house price fall.

        After all the initials C. P. R. E. don’t cover who’s entitled to live in rural areas or protection of their wealth and living standards, so why the coyness about those subjects?

        Not giving those issues equal weight leaves you wide open to claims of conflict of interest and being part of a “corrupt arrangement”.

  4. 6 CPRE Local Supporter February 3, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    It is helpful to know that Shaun Spiers’s reply to Martin Wolf was actually a letter in the FT. That was not clear from his original blog.
    Shaun Spiers writes ‘We are unequivocal in our support for a big increase in housebuilding’. He justifies this by saying that he has argued for this at CPRE meetings that that there ‘has been lots of vocal support’. But it is not stated as a CPRE national policy; and the Trustees (who determine policy – Policy Committee is only advisory) have passed no resolution to this effect. Branches have not been consulted.
    Household formation is a contentious issue. The 2011 Census showed lower household formation rates than had been used earlier based on trends drawing on previous Censuses. Household size – a a key determinant – has not fallen as forecast and in some areas has increased again. The household size figure for a Planning Authority area makes a huge difference to the ‘housing requirement’ calculation in the so-called ‘Objectively Assessed Need’ (OAN) for which the NPPG sets parameters.
    Shaun Spiers has earlier (blog, March 2014) admitted that CPRE should have stressed 10 years ago the adverse effect that immigration would have on pressure for housing and thus on the countryside. It failed to do that then. In some areas of England this is a reason for the ‘OAN’ being higher than it would otherwise have been.
    The most valuable article on the CPRE website about housing, which does set out a way forward which CPRE members can support, is that by Luke Burroughs on rural affordable housing of 23 Jan 2015 – seehttp://www.cpre.org.uk/magazine/opinion/item/3840-increasing-affordable-rural-housing
    It is amusing to note that the staff articles (located under ‘Be Inspired’ on the home page) are to be commented on using the ‘Disqus’ system. ‘Disqus’ depends on user-names and does not encourage readers registering to use their own names – rather the reverse. Shaun Spiers’s desire to have only real names used by those responding to his blogs contrasts with his staff not being able to know the real names of those writing responses to their pieces !

    • 7 sspiers February 3, 2015 at 3:11 pm

      If you think I lack authority to say that CPRE supports a big increase in house building, raise your concerns with the Board, at an AGM or through your branch or regional group. As for the issue of anonymity, I might take your criticisms a bit more seriously if you were prepared to identify yourself. On the other hand, I might not.

  5. 8 CPRE Local Supporter February 8, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    Shaun Spiers writes, “If you think I lack authority to say that CPRE supports a big increase in house building, raise your concerns with the Board, at an AGM or through your branch or regional group.” This is a revealing reply. There is evidently no resolution by the Trustees calling for a big increase in house building, or that would be quoted. That there isn’t such a resolution is unsurprising, as Branches would be most unhappy to read of one. CPRE positions seem to be whatever the Chief Executive says they are! (The Policy Committee does not decide policy for CPRE; it is only advisory.)
    Shaun Spiers’s continued unhappiness about comment on his articles being made using ‘usernames’ sits ill with the fact that CPRE staff articles under the ‘Be Inspired’ pages are open to comment using Disqus. All who use Disqus or read Disqus responses know that that system encourages usernames not real names. (This should not need repeating.)


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