I have enjoyed reading Oliver Letwin’s book Hearts and Minds – published recently by Biteback. It is an account of a man with a mission to make the world a better place and is engagingly written with good humour and tiggerish enthusiasm. He is candid about his failures and mistakes but is also able to document some important achievements.
The account of his efforts to “liberate” public sector land to get the new homes built that we need remains highly relevant. His meeting, only last year, with officials from Network Rail sounds like a Yes Minister sketch:
“We would sit around my table, solemnly pondering a map of some piece of land that was quite clearly of no use to the railway at all; the railway people would begin yet another litany of reasons why this particular patch of earth either (a) couldn’t be got at or (b) wouldn’t be attractive to any developer or (c) might at some later date be used by the railway for some purpose that they couldn’t quite yet put their finger on or (d) was subject to certain legal restrictions that they didn’t themselves understand but which it might take their lawyers a long time to find out about or (e) was in fact too small to be of interest or (f) was in fact too large to get planning permission or (g) was something that couldn’t be sold for some reason they couldn’t remember but which they would go back to their office and find out about… don’t call us, we’ll call you (not). “
Then there was the Ministry of Defence:
“I knew from bitter experience in the 2010–15 parliament that the military establishment would bring up its big guns to defend its estates. So I asked the implementation unit to draw up a table of facts about the MoD estate. What came back, all from public open sources, was pretty impressive. Total MoD landholdings were approximately equal to the size of Wales; there was roughly as much land held to support the activities of a couple of hundred thousand army, navy and air force personnel as there had been when we had about ten times as many people under arms in the Second World War; there were numerous golf courses, riding stables and other appurtenances that seemed to serve no obvious military use; and so it went on.”
It would be churlish to say that nothing has come of these efforts. From 2010-2015 the target of selling 7,000 acres – enough space for 100,000 homes – was met. In this Parliament there is a target to sell enough land from central government for another 160,000 homes – plus the same again from local government thus coming to 320,000.
There has been some criticism from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee over the length of times it takes for the homes to get built and this should be better monitored. But we know it is painfully slow. Some blame property developers for land banking – but the far greater factor is the crippling delays and expense of the planning system.
Given the pace at which the homes are built all the more reason to get far more land sold.
There is some confusion over just how much of the country is owned by the state.
According to Savills:
“Our analysis of newly available Land Registry data shows that at least 900,000 hectares (six per cent) of all freehold land in England and Wales is owned by public sector organisations.”
A hectare is 2.47 acres so that would come to 2.22 million acres.
The Ministry of Defence has claimed to own a mere 600,000 acres which is only the size of Surrey. But if the information that Letwin was supplied with is correct and MOD land is equal to the size of Wales that would mean 5.13 million acres. Goodness knows how big the total state land acreage would then be once local authority land is included. Ten million?
So perhaps the land sold since 2010 and due to be sold by 2020 amounts to two per cent of the Government’s holding. While millions of people are struggling to buy their first home and millions more are squashed in overcrowded conditions the Government is hoarding millions of acres entirely surplus to requirements. That bureaucratic inertia is the real land banking scandal. Meanwhile we are paying an estimated £41.5 billion in debt interest in this financial year. The Government should be selling land on a vastly greater scale. They could get huge proceeds and speed up the subsequent house building by selling it with planning permission – working on design with such bodies as Create Street and the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community.
Letwin reminds us of the challenges involved but also of the extraordinary potential. What is needed is the political will. That has been completely lacking so far.