I have noticed a lot of young people enthusiastically supporting the Government’s proposals to radically cut down planning regulations.
They join in attacks on groups like the National Trust and Friends of the Earth, calling them wealthy NIMBYs who are protecting their own over-inflated house prices. They buy into the suggestion that the planning system has held back house building, harming a growing proportion of the current generation of young people who are now “jilted”, priced out of home ownership.
Is this right?
I don’t think so. In fact, I believe the Government’s proposals are bad for young people, and bad for intergenerational justice.
There can be no doubt that planning regulations are a drag on housing development, adding both the cost of the buildings themselves and the process of putting them up. But that’s like saying that the minimum wage and gender equality laws are a drag on business. They may be, but they’re regulations we value.
The evidence that the planning system is a bottleneck is weak. According to London Councils there are approximately 170,000 homes in London’s planning system with permission that aren’t currently being built – the constraint being scarce mortgage finance caused by the credit crunch and high land values.
In London Ken Livingstone used the planning system to force reluctant councils to build more houses, and increased output by almost 50% in a decade, though it was still about half the level required to stabilise prices through supply. Boris Johnson has continued with this approach, albeit with more of an emphasis on negotiation than force.
Would the private sector build more homes without the planning system? The only time in the past century that the UK has seen house building match demand, and kept housing affordable, was when councils built in huge volumes from the 1950s to 1970s.If you think price bubbles are all about supply, explain the continued volatility of house prices through the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The big home builders have little incentive to build large volumes and deflate the value of land, and never filled the gap when we stopped councils building in the 1980s. Have we given up hope of persuading the public to back large scale public house building?
The Government’s main reform is to radically simplify planning regulations. Are the regulations and guidance the problem, or are we overlooking the understaffed local planning authorities and unduly complex or slow processes?
Actually the biggest obstacle to building more housing is the cost of land. Unless we threw away any protections for the green belt and farm land that take up most of our country, or accept much higher density levels across the board, it will always be too scarce a resource for supply to match demand. There can be no doubt that we need policies that reduce the value of land, or at least contain the rises in land values (which are in fact the underlying reason for rises in the prices of existing houses).
Planning consent for housing transforms the value of farm land and brownfield land, so the argument goes that presumed consent would somehow help. I’m not convinced it would, and anyway we could call for proposals such as councils auctioning off land and using the planning gain to fund affordable housing.
Do we need to reduce planning costs as well as tackle land values, pushing for every tool in the box to be used? Is it simply that the current Government is serious about reducing planning costs, but that no minister since Lloyd George has shown a serious interest in reintroducing land value taxation?
My greater worry is that young people are forgetting the benefits of a detailed planning system.
If they are concerned with intergenerational equity, what greater disaster for the current youngest and future generations can there be than climate change? Successive governments may have failed to keep housing costs in check, but that failure pales into insignificance when we consider that decades of hot air on climate change policy have failed to even slow the global rise in greenhouse gase emissions.
The planning system is central to mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Without tough and highly prescriptive planning rules on car parking, road layouts, renewable energy and a long list of other policy areas, councils will continue to allow development that is incompatible with reducing emissions to a sustainable level. Labour failed to go far enough with the planning system, and just as excellent new rules on renewables were ready to be introduced, this Government has decided to scrap the lot and introduce some vague aspirations through which anti-green councils (being the majority in England) will drive a polluting coach and horses.
Can you see every council in England and Wales deciding that “sustainable development” requires a reduction in car traffic, fewer car parking spaces and proper provision of cycle routes?
Allowing people to convert offices into homes without planning permission could damage jobs and lead to the worst type of housing being built, without any regard to considerations of size or quality.
Protecting the green belt and farm land is important for climate change adaptation, not only in terms of protecting habitats (if only all farms were managed well) but more importantly for food security. It’s a long time since the UK was self-sufficient in food, but there are a number of pressures on food prices that will only get worse in the years to come: global population growth and an increase in per-capita demand for meat from grain-intensive cattle; oil prices that will only go in one direction long term, which not only fuels machinery but is also the basis for fertilisers and pesticides; and longer term the potential loss of many of the world’s bread baskets due to climate change taking hold.
We need to keep all the land we can for food production, so that future generations have a chance of keeping a high level of domestic food production using systems such as permaculture and aquaponics. This isn’t science fiction, the new London Plan even begins to discuss this concern.
The planning system can also help redress longstanding integenerational iniquities, such as requiring councils to plan for extra social housing (council and housing association housing) in wealthier areas, and ensuring that homes are always built with decent sized rooms (something this Government has reversed to simplify regulations).
These and other provisions could still be enshrined by more enlightened councils in the new slimmed down system, but they could be challenged if they stood in the way of building lots of houses and promoting economic growth. The benefits of will largely go to property developers and income rich people who can buy houses.
By all means call for planning regulations to be streamlined where they are excessive, and to force NIMBY councils to permit more house building. Challenge conservation groups where they block the development of decent housing in areas that desperately need it, and where the justification is weak or self-serving.
But please don’t support this regressive Government in its efforts to tear up the planning system in the name of misdirected growth. The critics aren’t hysterical, hypocritical or self-serving; the concern is genuine and justified.