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Homes for all small

Miles Gibson is the Prize Director for the Wolfson Economics Prize 2014. For more information about the Prize visit www.wolfsonprize.org.uk

This week, Nick Clegg has moved the garden city debate into new territory by proposing that communities adversely affected by development should be compensated for that adversity. Compensation of some sort is already a feature of the planning system, and is estimated to be worth perhaps £5 billion a year to local councils. But the Deputy Prime Minister’s proposals are new because they are targeted at individuals, rather than councils.

It’s clear that the garden city debate has become more sophisticated since we launched the Wolfson Economics Prize on the topic last November. It now appears to be taken for granted by policy commentators that something is going to happen, given the statements made by all three party leaders on the topic and the publication of the Government’s own prospectus-seeking barrier-busting ideas on the delivery of large communities. Confidence has been boosted by our own poll findings that:

  • 66 per cent of British people think that we need to build more homes in order to keep Britain’s economy growing;
  • 74 per cent of British people think that garden cities are a good idea to help meet the need for more housing, and;
  • 68 per cent of people think that garden cities would protect more countryside from development than the alternatives for delivering the housing we need.

In a surprise finding, Conservative voters supported these statements more strongly than the average (74, 80 and 73 per cent respectively).

But that doesn’t mean we can foist garden cities on communities that don’t want them. Garden cities need to be locally supported. But how on earth can that support be secured? Well, our polling finds that 26 per cent of the population don’t need any persuading: when asked, they didn’t agree that the area where they live was an inappropriate place to build one. Another 19 per cent didn’t have a view.

However, that still leaves 55 per cent of the population who like the idea of garden cities in principle but don’t think their area is the right place to build one. In an earlier article for Conservative Home, I argued that it’s pointless to demonise people who have concerns about big developments. Those concerns are real and need to be addressed.  Enter Clegg, with his ideas about how at least some of them might be tackled.

The reaction to his ideas has been strangely confused, but we can summarise the key objections as follows.

  • People should be grateful to have housing developments in their area – they should be paying us. Morally speaking, perhaps they should. But they won’t. However angry we might be about the housing “haves” failing to respond nobly and selflessly to the needs of the housing “have nots”, resistance to development cannot simply be exhorted out of existence.
  • Money can’t buy you love. In other words, it is demeaning to offer people money to allay their concerns. It is certainly a simplification of the complex reasons why people object to development to suggest that all they are worried about is their own financial position. But some of them undoubtedly are, so if property prices or cost of living pressures can be removed from the picture then development proposals would be more strongly supported than otherwise. So it is at least worth having that conversation.
  • Money still can’t buy you love. It is then argued that not all costs of development can be captured or addressed in monetary terms. People may well be worried about more emotional factors. Uncertain changes to a place for which people feel nostalgia and sentimental attachment are clearly going to cause worry and distress. Our entrants argued that it is no part of a sensible garden city strategy to trash those feelings; in fact, they said that the most sensible approach is to record, preserve, celebrate and integrate into the new development the best things about the place they live: which might be through giving new public access to land, a building restoration, public art, or museums. This gives local people comfort that new development is nourishing and sustaining their community rather than destroying it. Even if money can’t buy you love, it unquestionably can help protect the things you love.
  • The taxpayer can’t afford it and it sets a bad precedent. But who said the taxpayer was paying? Commentators here confuse compensation for compulsory purchase of land needed for development (which is at least initially paid by the state) with compensation for the adverse effects of a nearby development (which is regularly not paid at all by anyone, to anyone). Our Prize entrants were set the challenge of finding a solution for making garden cities popular, but which doesn’t cost taxpayers a penny. Many entrants argued that there is an alternative source of funds, namely the uplift in land value which occurs when planning permission is granted for development. This uplift is already exploited to pay for the £5bn of benefits I mention above.
  • This is bribery. This most emotive of arguments needs to be carefully dissected. The nub of the accusation is that people are being paid to agree to something that isn’t in the public interest, and that accepting compensation (even if at community level) for agreeing to development is a betrayal of the rights of future generations. Of course, the refusal to contemplate any housing in the locality can also be portrayed as a betrayal of the rights future generations – so perhaps we just need to decide which betrayal we are more comfortable with. In any case, and because objectors to development do sometimes object in their private interest rather than in the public interest, compensating them for their private interests (about which the planning system is not allowed to care) might narrow the range of objections to those which are genuinely about the public interest.

So what incentives are people actually most interested in? Our poll helps us to find out. It turns out that people are most favourably disposed to a Garden City in response to incentives if these are targeted on reducing the cost of living, and if their own property prices are protected – in other words, if their private interests are addressed. That said, people agreed that better local services would also make them more likely to support a garden city in their area.

The challenge we’ve set the Prize’s five finalists is to provide proposals for delivering a new garden city which is visionary, economically viable and popular. They have just submitted their final proposals to the Judges, and we’ll be publishing their ideas in the coming weeks. The Judges will need to decide whether the ideas we receive on incentives and compensation are credible solutions for solving the popularity and localism conundrum.

9 comments for: Miles Gibson: Garden cities – could money buy local support?

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