FT letter: who is going to build the houses we need?

I love the Financial Times. It is a serious paper with some very good columnists. But on housing, the FT has bought wholesale the line of the developer-funded, anti-planning think-tanks that the way to increase output is to weaken the planning system and, in particular, the Green Belt. An FT leading article on Tuesday skilfully compressed almost every anti-planning misconception in two columns. My response is in today’s paper, and reproduced below. I am grateful to the paper for publishing it. In the coming weeks I intend to write a few blogs analysing in more detail some of the anti-conservation arguments that are becoming increasingly influential with ‘opinion formers’, if not (I am pleased to say) with the electorate.

You are right to accuse politicians of housing policies that ‘consistently fail to match up to the challenge’ (A debate on UK housing is conducted in bad faith, 28 April) but there is little likelihood that your own solutions would do any better in meeting housing need.

You propose reforming the planning system, but successive major reforms in recent years have not resulted in an increase in housing output. Rather than further liberalisation, it would be more effective – if less exciting – to ensure that the current system worked better, starting by boosting the capacity of local authority planning departments.

You dismiss the value of brownfield development on the basis that no one wants to live on ‘old industrial sites’. Our most successful cities are full of people happily living on ‘old industrial sites’ whose reclamation makes life better for everyone. But brownfield development is more likely to involve small scale infill or the regeneration of existing housing estates or high streets than ‘old industrial sites’. CPRE’s research shows there is suitable brownfield land for at least a million new homes in England, most of it in London and the wider south east: let’s use it.

Above all, you ignore the question of who is going to build the homes we need. There is absolutely no evidence that the industry is either willing or able to build on the scale promised by the political parties. When we consistently built more than 200,000 houses a year, the state built more than half of them. Unless governments – and distinguished newspapers – focus on who is going to build and pay for the homes we need, the result will be the same as it was after the last round of planning reforms: too few homes built, too much countryside lost.

17 Responses to “FT letter: who is going to build the houses we need?”

  1. 1 Rupert Young May 1, 2015 at 9:28 am

    Who is going to build houses is a question that does not just relate to finance, residential developers or planning consents but to actual brickies, plasterers and plumbers. There are simply not enough skilled tradespeople in the system. Even if the Gov’t financed Councils or Housing Associations to develop houses they would have difficulty currently in sourcing both the labour and the materials.

  2. 2 Lawrence May 1, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    I’m sure the FT would be delighted to publish a detailed analysis of how all this brownfield could be viably built on… but the CPRE doesn’t offer such a costed plan, so they can’t.

    Again the tone is rather divisive. Pro-development and pro-conservation aren’t mutually exclusive.

    From the above it sounds like working age taxpayers must subsidise brownfield-only development, while the wealthy retired in the countryside won’t pay a penny to protect their views? Not to mention they’ll continue to enjoy huge tax-free gains through increasing scarcity of their asset.

    How about ramping up Council Tax in rural areas to fund brownfield regeneration?

    • 3 sspiers May 1, 2015 at 2:03 pm

      Lawrence, I thought it a pretty pro-development letter! My point is that if the house building industry is only geared a finite number of houses a year, releasing more greenfield sites isn’t going make them build more homes; it’ll just make it more likely that the building takes place on greenfield sites, including in the Green Belt, than within towns and cities that have the infrastructure to support new homes and which would benefit from good quality new developments. We have published a report on improving the viability of brownfield development – http://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/housing-and-planning/housing/item/download/3961. But brownfield development need not be hugely costly: we got to over 80% brownfield development before the housing crash without significant subsidies.

      As for property owners’ unearned gains on their assets, CPRE’s view is that we should be aiming at stable house prices, not housing as an investment. Stabilising house prices will require more than just building more houses (necessary though that is) and I have supported tax reform in several of these blogs. But I wouldn’t higher council tax for those living in rural areas. That sounds, to coin a phrase, rather divisive. Not everyone living in rural areas is rich – there is a lot of hidden rural poverty – and besides, a beautiful countryside is for everyone, not just those who live in it.

      • 4 Lawrence May 1, 2015 at 2:26 pm

        Believe me I’m no fan of the current delivery mechanism of house builders only speculatively building for sale at market price. Just giving them more land and giving buyers bigger mortgages is just repeating past mistakes.

        I’d love to see large institutional investors coming in, building at highish densities around properly planned, well-spaced locations served by existing/new public transport links.

        This would, SHOCK HORROR, require releasing a tiny, controlled amount of green belt/field but that would be a small price to pay for recasting housing delivery into a balanced, sustainable model fit for the next century and beyond. Brownfield-only isn’t anywhere near being that.

      • 5 sspiers May 1, 2015 at 2:38 pm

        CPRE has never said ‘no’ to all greenfield development. We support a brownfield first approach, i.e. a duty on local authorities to carry out thorough urban capacity studies and use suitable brownfield land before releasing greenfield land. But brownfield first does not mean only brownfield. CPRE branches have even supported redrawing Green Belt boundaries as part of a proper plan when ‘exceptional circumstances’ have been demonstrated.

        So while I hesitate to say we agree, we don’t appear don’t disagree on everything!

  3. 6 Tim Lund May 1, 2015 at 7:40 pm

    I’m glad you raise the question of who is going to build the homes we need. From my cursory knowledge of the industry, I believe at least two major developers (Crest Nicholson, Wimpey) were once keen to build as much as possible, than reach for the safety cushion of land banks. This suggests that there is something with the system – planning, I suggest – which makes the developers uncompetitive, and if we want to get more houses built, whatever is causing the problem needs to be addressed.

  4. 7 Mary Walsh May 1, 2015 at 10:35 pm

    Is building on the Green Belt going to house the people working in the Towns in such jobs as nurses, teachers, bus drivers, carers, ambulance drivers, police, waiters, kitchen staff, etc. etc. etc.? Those who can afford the houses in the Green Belt will not be doing these jobs and won’t be on zero hours contracts and doing three part time jobs to make ends meet either. We don’t need more detached houses on green fields we need affordable housing in the places where people actually work and so want to live.

    This isn’t a single issue question of exactly how many houses we need – its about them being of the right type, in the right place and being what the majority of people would consider to be ‘affordable’. We should also bear in mind that we need to grow food, keep livestock, battle air pollution and generally clean up our act. Will this be helped by building on green fields when we don’t have to?

    This idea that people in rural areas are being selfish not wanting to share what they have is just a mantra used to discredit any alternative point of view. We have bad housing, poor people and a lack of affordable homes in villages and towns alike. What exactly is the real argument for not turning ugly brownfields sites into decent housing for those who live near them and need a home?

  5. 8 Andrew Needham May 2, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Some parts of Green Belt are less green than others.

    Broadway Malyan has urged the next Government to “re-think the green belt and the protection it affords areas of land which could contribute a greater value to society through sustainable development and providing new homes”. The company has published a report which concluded that “a re-calibrated green belt, coupled with strategic growth of towns and centres will have a significant impact on resolving the housing crisis.”
    Read the full ’50 Shades of Green Belt’ report

    • 9 Mary Walsh May 2, 2015 at 9:32 am

      You could also read the Development Strategy of Central Beds Council where miles of Green Belt are to be added as urban extensions to existing towns by drawing an arbitrary line, some of which crosses into AONB.

      This is not carefully considered siting of houses in less than glamorous bits of Green Belt, this is lazy and inept, developer driven planning which has been turned down twice by a Planning Inspector, but continues to be used for planning purposes by this Council. This is not the only example of the advantage that has been taken by misinterpreting the NPPF and a presumption in favour of development. .Part of this is to be a completely unnecessary RFI on Green Belt and beside a SSSi just up the rail from the one planned for Radlett. This is productive farmland and affects the Chiltern Hills, Green Belt does not need to be beautiful to fulfil its original purpose which is still as pertinent today as it was when established.

      I know about this Green Belt development and am aware of many others that represent opportunism, not planning for the future in a way that doesn’t give with one hand and take away with another. It looks as though in reality only 10% of this is to be affordable housing and developers often renegotiate terms after permission is granted. Can you honestly justify this?

    • 10 Lawrence May 2, 2015 at 9:45 am

      Our use of circular green belts is massively inefficient and indefensible compared to what the Danes do:


      London’s green belt is already full of transport links, I don’t see why releasing a strip even 1 mile wide either side of these is beyond the wit of man?

      Sadly in this country any debate is dominated by ultra-conservative retirees with rose-tinted specs and closed-minds.

  6. 11 Jon Reeds May 6, 2015 at 9:43 am

    “Ultra-conservative retirees with rose-tinted specs and closed minds”. That seems a bit harsh. Ultra-conservative? Hardly – the status quo is posited on the sort of low-density, car-dependent urban sprawl that those who want to build on greenfield sites find most profitable. Rose-tinted specs? It certainly would be nice to get away from our harsh environmental challenges for a bit. Can you tell me where to get some? Retired? No. Closed-minds? Well, that’s surely anyone who disagrees with me.

    A brownfield-first approach is vital for a range of reasons. We are actually desperately short of land in this country, despite what house builders tell you. (“Go on, just give us another 10%… then another 10% etc..”). But we still insist on squandering it. England is Europe’s most densely populated country but, for 100 years, has built its homes at the lowest density. We imagine there’s lots of countryside out there, but we expect it to provide an awful lot – the majority of our food, all of our water, most of our flood protection, outdoor leisure and biodiversity, much of our timber, all the intangibles its beauty provides, etc,, etc.. But we’re already dependent on imports for a third of our food and that proportion is growing. Is everyone sure we’ll always be able to secure those imports with a growing population in an increasingly insecure world?

    Then there’s urban regeneration, sadly neglected of late. The absence of a robust brownfield-first policy is, in effect, a greenfield-first policy as developers will always prefer cheap and profitable greenfield sites. Ask anyone on the planning front line in southern England.

    But we need more than just brownfield-first. We need the whole smart growth approach. Higher densities – not the ultra-high densities of rabbit hutch flats, but something like the late-Victorians achieved with houses with amenity space in their sustainable cities. Then we should also remember the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80%. So we should concentrate development where possible within conurbations to reduce the need to drive and allow greater use of sustainable transport modes.

    Then there’s transit-oriented development. You’re right, Lawrence, to stress the importance of concentrating development along transit corridors, but the example of post-war Copenhagen is something we left behind long ago thanks to the sheer growth of UK population and road transport. In fact London before the Great War (and for a brief time afterwards) grew along corridors; it was described as “octopus development”. Then they invented the motor car and the bits in between got filled in. Then London got the M25 and it all went mad.

    And the other thing we really, really need is regional policy. I could show you parts of England where house prices are really low and actually falling even during our fragile, temporary boomette. There are towns where you can buy a habitable house for under £40,000. We urgently need to move the jobs where the people (and the houses) are but we persist in moving the people where the jobs are. This is not sound economics, it’s just plain daft.

    • 12 Lawrence May 8, 2015 at 1:28 pm

      Sorry but the dismal election result confirms my fears 100%. Housing policy will remain demand-side, based on protecting and inflating house prices of the bloated retiree generation. Buy To Let will boom again so my generation can basically look forward to a life of rent slavery.

      Shares in house builders and estate agents have gone through the roof this morning, I wonder why…

  7. 13 Ian Harvey May 6, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    Developers will always chase low density, greenfield development regardless of the environmental and social consequences because that is what makes them the most profit. A strong planning system based on a smart growth approach is needed to ensure top-quality homes, built to the highest standards are located in the right places, with the support of the community. The Planning system is not stopping house building; it is an inability of people to access affordable mortgages from the banking sector that is the real issue”.

    The Government(?) whoever that will be needs to focus on keeping our cities alive, and preserve our countryside through smart growth. Good quality, high density housing schemes on brownfield sites should be the priority.

  8. 14 Kristian Niemietz May 8, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    “…has bought wholesale the line of the developer-funded, anti-planning think-tanks that the way to increase output is to weaken the planning system and, in particular, the Green Belt”

    -That’s because the way to increase output IS to weaken the planning system and, in particular, the Green Belt. That’s the result of virtually every empirical paper ever written on the subject, and as a rule of thumb, those who deny overwhelming evidence are either
    a.) extremely stupid, or
    b.) skilled at the art of self-deception and motivated reasoning

    Or, of course, some combination of a.) and b.)

    • 15 sspiers May 8, 2015 at 6:37 pm

      Think it possible you may be mistaken… Not everyone who disagrees with you is a fool or a knave (or ‘skilled in the art of self-deception’). There have been three major planning reforms in the last ten or so years, and a weakening of the Green Belt, and still the houses haven’t come.

      Time for one more push (hard in a democracy)? Or time for a rethink, a bit more subtlety and a big less dogma?

      • 16 Kristian Niemietz May 15, 2015 at 10:28 am

        “Not everyone who disagrees with you is a fool or a knave (or ‘skilled in the art of self-deception’).”
        -Maybe not, but there is a very, very large overlap.

  1. 1 FT letter: who is going to build the houses we need? | Regeneration X Blog Trackback on May 1, 2015 at 6:59 pm

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