Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities.
You can almost guarantee that, however mad British politics gets, solving the housing crisis is never far from policy makers’ minds.
In Downing Street, Dominic Cummings and Robert Jenrick are reportedly working on a plan to ramp up homebuilding numbers as part of our recovery from the economic damage done by lockdown. I understand that very significant reforms are being suggested to Britain’s post-war planning rulebook.
Significant reforms are certainly needed. The shortage of homes, particularly for younger people who need move to our most high-demand cities and towns for work, remains one of the largest domestic challenges that we face as a country. It fuels huge social divisions: while homeownership remains a distant dream for many young people, existing homeowners – mostly older and living in urban south east England – have amassed huge fortunes in housing wealth.
Without a proper plan to fix this problem and help the younger generation, no political party should be confident about its own long-term survival. The Government must come up with a bold solution to get Britain building the homes we need, where we need them.
All too often our analysis of the housing crisis boils down to criticising the people operating around it: greedy developers; box-ticking town planners; selfish NIMBYs or frivolous millennials impulse-buying too many avocados to save for a deposit.
We say that if only these people changed their behaviours – built more, saved more, thought more about the next generation – then we wouldn’t have a housing crisis. This is a flawed view; the problem with our planning system is the system itself.
Most town planners that you speak to will quietly admit that the planning system is designed to prevent development, not permit it. Its discretionary case-by-case nature rations the development of land and chokes off the supply of new homes in the places where we need them most – close to jobs. Instead, it forces councils to build new homes where it is most politically expedient, not where they’re needed.
The consequence of this? Just four per cent of suburban neighbourhoods supplied 45 per cent of new homes in the past decade, while one in five neighbourhoods built no new homes at all. Some places have particularly poor records: in Oxford for example, no neighbourhood has built more than 25 homes a year in the last decade and as a result, many of the people drawn there for work and study struggle to afford decant housing. If this does not change our prosperity will suffer and the inequalities that we see in this country will become even more entrenched.
Clearly the bureaucratic case-by-case nature of the current planning system is a major hurdle to our ability to supply the homes that we need, where we need them. You can see alarming parallels in our own system with the ‘shortage economies’ of the former Eastern Bloc, where production was tightly controlled by the rationing of permits.
Tinkering around the edges is not enough. To solve the housing crisis and build the homes needed we should introduce a brand-new flexible zoning code, designed by the UK and devolved governments, to guide local authorities and city regions in the development of their own local plans.
Under this new code, any proposals that comply with a zone-based local plan and building regulations would automatically be granted planning permission. Areas would be zoned according to density – ranging from light residential up to industrial.
There would still be opportunities for public consultation under this model, but they would be frontloaded into the writing of the plan rather than giving the public effective sign off on every single development.
I appreciate that removing much of the public consultation element of the planning process would be a controversial move for many people, but the current system is simply too bureaucratic and unresponsive to allow for enough new homes to be built.
Many of the most common concerns that people have about development, such as aesthetics and density, could be addressed in the drafting of the local plan. So, for example, if people wanted to ensure that any new developments in their area were medium density mock-Georgian terraces they would still have the opportunity to do this under a zone-based system, but at the very beginning when the plan is developed.
A stable home need not be unaffordable, as it is for many people in Britain today. Our housing crisis is the result of a political choice that results from our tacit commitment to sustain a bureaucracy that deliberately undersupplies new homes. This fuels inequality between prosperous places and struggling one, between homeowners and their children, and between the haves and the have-nots.
We can change this with a more flexible zoned approach to development, but it requires genuine political will to make it happen. With a majority of 80 and no election on the horizon, the time is right for the Government to seize this opportunity to end the housing crisis.
Yet if it balks now and our housing crisis worsens, it will further entrench our economic and social divides and make Britain an even more unequal place.
You can read our new report ‘Planning for the Future: How flexible zoning will end the housing crisis’ here.