On 27th October the Place Alliance held the fourth of its Big Meets in London. The packed meeting was addressed by Brandon Lewis, Minister of State for Housing and Planning. I was one of a number of people asked to make a response, although of course the minister wasn’t able to stay to hear these responses. I therefore promised to post what I said…
It is good to have the opportunity to thank you today. When I won the Wolfson Prize last year I was in such trouble with many of my friends and colleagues. Then the minister released a statement saying that our essay was rubbish, and certainly wasn’t, nor would it ever be government policy and my reputation was rescued! I can however sympathise with your position, a number of the things that we suggested are politically impossible, not just for a conservative minister like yourself but, as I have found in my subsequent discussions, to politicians of all persuasions. This is the tragedy of current housing policy, there is a broad consensus that the current system isn’t working as it should and that something should be done but a unanimous view that it is all but impossible to change.
I have spent the last twelve months talking at conferences like this to a wide range of people and we have been looking particularly at the situation in Oxford and Sheffield. From these discussions I would suggest the following four impossible things that we need to find a way of doing:
- Large scale change: let us start with the easiest – a mechanism to allow us to act on a a large scale, as we did when we cleared our slums, built our new towns or indeed staged the Olympics. The current mechanism for doing this is a Mayoral Development Corporation as has just been designated at Old Oak Common. Manchester and Sheffield may go down this route once, once they have mayors but not everywhere will have a mayor. Whatever we call them we need a way to designate bodies that can act across borders, acquire land, assume planning powers, borrow money etc…
- Cross boundary planning: In many places administrative boundaries are now drawn along the back garden fence of the last house in the town. If we are to plan properly we need a mechanism to allow us to plan for housing growth across housing market areas which means across administrative boundaries. Virtually no one I have spoken to believes that the duty to cooperate is working and, while I realise we are not allowed to talk about regional planning, there are some things that can only be planned locally once a policy context has been set over a wider area, housing is one of them.
- Land value capture: The planning system in the UK is based on the nationalisation of development land rights. The value of land is therefore a national asset and the ‘unearned increment’ as Ebenezer Howard called it, is being redistributed to land owners every time land is allocated or planning consent granted. Because of this land in The UK is far more expensive than elsewhere in Europe and a disproportion amount of money, time and effort is spent unlocking its value rather than building good homes. This it seems to me is the main reason why the quality of housing in countries like Holland and Germany is so much greater than in the UK.
- The green belt: Finally the most difficult one of all! Green belts perform a very useful function in preventing sprawl (note the present tense). However in any successful place there will come a point when the demand/need for new homes exceeds the capacity to build within the settlement. At this point current policy means that either housebuilding grinds to a halt, as in Oxford, or land is allocated in surrounding districts beyond the green belt. In the latter case people are forced to commute back across the greenbelt, often with no alternative but to use their car. It would be much more sustainable to build in a planned, managed way within the green belt. We estimated that you could double the size of Oxford using just 7% of its green belt. I know it’s difficult but we need to create a plan-led way of doing this.
How does the saying go – the difficult we can do straight away, the impossible takes a little longer. Now that the government is in a reasonably secure position I would hope that now is the time to address some of these impossible tasks. I accept that the politics is difficult but I do think the case can be made, and that there is a cross-party acceptance of the need for change.