Matt Thomson is Head of Planning at The Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Dr Kristian Niemietz’s call for a relaxation of planning regulations and the abolition of the Green Belt is at best polemic and at worst unfortunate misrepresentation.
To address the issue of misrepresentation, Dr Niemietz claims his recent opinion piece for the Institute for Economic Affairs is an objective review of the empirical literature – yet his choice of literature is highly selective. By way of example he cites, as if it was the Campaign to Protect Rural England’s only output on housing and planning issues in the last eight years, a CPRE report from 2006; it responded to three statements from Policy Exchange that argued for changes to the planning system which might free up the market to deliver more houses.
His supporting citation for CPRE’s position is entirely untrue. Nowhere in our report did we insist “that there is ‘no evidence’ about the impact of planning on house prices”. In fact, on the page that Dr Niemietz refers to, our report boldly states that “we accept that planning has restrained the building of new homes, especially on greenfield sites, and that this has played a part, but not the leading role, in pushing up house prices in the long term”.
Such attributions aside, Dr Niemietz’s invective begins with the view that claims that brick shortages are holding up housing development are some kind of ‘green blob’ conspiracy to justify opposition to housing development. This could not be further from the truth. The brick shortage was originally cited not by environmentalists but by the development industry as one of the reasons why they are still failing to deliver the considerable housing targets to which England’s allegedly “unduly restrictive” planning system has, in all reasonableness and permissiveness, duly consented.
Next, Dr Niemietz complains that calls for building on brownfield sites in preference to the countryside are “beginning to turn stale”. Quite how a desire to regenerate ugly, derelict sites that blight our villages, towns and cities as modern, attractive places to live and work close to current populations and making the best use of existing infrastructure is “stale” is beyond this writer. If you’re looking for an example of “stale”, it is bland, suburban, car-dependent housing estates which are contrary to the needs and aspirations of local communities.
The most important question here remains, however, whether our planning policies are restricting housing development and hence putting up house prices. On this Dr Niemietz’s review of the empirical literature, such as it is, misses a number of key pieces of evidence. Firstly, annual housing completion rates since the late 1980s have been low not because of any planning policy issues, but simply and solely because that was when the nation stopped its programme of large-scale council house building.
The private sector has – once economic cycles and other short-term factors have been taken into account – always delivered about the same number of houses. And here Dr Niemietz is right. It is not the supply of bricks that is the issue (although this is what the housebuilders themselves chose to claim earlier this year). The number of houses that the volume housebuilders build is the number required to ensure that they get a decent (or some would say indecent) return on their investment. It doesn’t matter how many permissions are granted, or even where they are granted: the volume housebuilders build roughly the same number year on year.
Where there are opportunities to increase this number most dramatically is in opening up the housebuilding market to other players, particularly small- and medium-sized builders (see our report) and custom and self-build housing; however, these both require changes to the way financial institutions respond to requests for finance more than they need changes to the planning regime (although some tweaks would be helpful there too).
And then there just remains the question of whether we have the most restrictive planning system in Europe, which is debatable, and if readers would like a more balanced opinion on this they might care to take a look at the Royal Town Planning Institute’s “Planning Myths” pages. The RTPI’s data shows among other things that 80% of all planning applications are granted (to say nothing for the ever-growing categories of ‘permitted development’ that do not require an application for permission).
All of which begs the question of why we have a planning system, and the answer is partly to provide certainty for investors, partly to resolve neighbour disputes, partly to ensure that the correct infrastructure is provided to meet needs arising from new development, and partly lots of other things that mean that, yes, we do sometimes need to say “no” to development.
Critically, from CPRE’s point of view, the planning system is there to ensure that the things that people value about their surroundings, such as the beauty and tranquillity of its open spaces, are at least considered in development decisions, and hopefully protected where appropriate. And they are certainly worth protecting! From an economic perspective, our countryside is one of the reasons people choose to invest here. It’s certainly not the weather. Or indeed the bricks.