Natalie is co-founder and chairman of Million Homes, Million Lives, and is a non-executive director of a leading building society. Follow Natalie on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-09-17 at 11.48.55Another day, another demand for a free for all
in planning approval for new homes.  A free-for-all in planning is not the answer to increasing the numbers of homes being
built. Since John Prescott was Deputy Prime Minister and in charge of such
things there has been a relentless call on planning authorities to approve,
approve, approve, and the rules have been steadily relaxed.  But approve,
approve, approve did not result in build, build, build. Over 280,000 fewer
were built under the Labour government
between 1998 and 2010 than in the previous 13 years of the Conservative
government.  More homes overall, and more affordable homes, have been
built in each of 2011 and 2012 than in 2010.  More council housing has
been built in the last 2 years than over the entire 13 years of the Labour

Low housebuilding has been a longstanding issue
in this country, so to blame NIMBYs is a bit lazy. Of course large
housebuilders want clean green fields to build 2,000-10,000 homes if they can.
But that may not what our country needs or wants in all places or at any cost.
Planning officers, councillors and those communities who want sensible planned
housing and infrastructure which preserves quality of life and opportunity for
all in their community are not the ones holding back housing numbers.

There are around 400,000 planning permissions for homes already granted. 
There is capacity for more than one million homes on old and disused land,
perhaps two
million homes
. The housebuilding industry itself
has enough planning permissions comfortably to build out for the next five years and more. We can meet the historic shortfall of around a million
homes over the next decade within our existing and planned for resources.

The question, and it is a longstanding one, is
how to turn planning potential into new homes, with priority for re-using old
land first.  There are two challenges: the first is the housebuilding
industry itself.  There is a small band of
huge building companies who build the most. Following the credit crunch many
housebuilders stayed in business by moth-balling sites, reducing housebuilding
numbers by around 40 per cent, stoking up demand and thereby prices and profitability.
That strategy has worked. Housebuilders have been profitable and resilient in
the last few years. Most have not gone to the wall, as they did when they
pursued a ‘build more quickly and sell more cheaply’ strategy in previous
housing recessions.

Many of the large housebuilders are very good
indeed. But it is like having only the big supermarkets, and having too few
local shops or petrol stations. As many as half of the planned sites may be too
small for the big builders. It is not commercially viable for big builders to
work on these sites. That is why Taxpayer's
could help, unlocking many of these
smaller sites and releasing the builder in all of us.

The second challenge is information about what
planning permissions are in place at any one time and who owns them.  We could expand the opportunity for property
entrepreneurialism if the information were easily accessible. At present there is
not a central register of planning approvals or planning starts.  This could be done, and quickly, as the IT platform
for such a service is up and running. We have impressive government data
facilities now, for stamp duty transactions and agricultural land payments.  These can be monitored on a real time basis, and use state of the art mapping
services.  There is a public and accessible Land
system where you can find out details
about property ownership.

However, we have no national public search or
database of planning approvals or starts in a public and real time way. Such a database could enable a trading platform for planning permissions. It could
enable local authorities to have better information about planning progress in
neighbouring authorities.  Councillors
making decisions on planning would have fuller information about the status of developments
and developers in their area over a period of time. Open access information
could allow community groups to actively engage with the worst of the land
hoggers, including many public bodies, who have sites which blight many of our
towns and which are often a magnet for bad behaviour.  In short, the
national transparency agenda should have planning approvals in its sights.

Instead of attacking people who care about our
countryside and their communities, maybe we should start by incentivising the
building of small developments, by maximising the building out of sites with
existing planning permissions, and by putting in place a national, accessible,
and transparent, planning register. Let’s build out more of what’s already
there, and be slow to ruin our communities and our countryside for the sake of
someone else's easy profit.

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