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Ben Southwood is Head of Housing, Transport and the Urban Space at Policy Exchange.

Any major policy programme is bound to meet with some cautious responses. The Government’s housebuilding programme, manifested in its White Paper, Planning for the Future, as well as its reforms to the housing need targets, is no exception.

People are quite rightly conservative about their neighbourhoods, and are risk-averse when it comes to any change in the rules of the game – especially one that could affect the value of their homes. Ultimately, planning is about the places people live, and the lives they lead. This must be kept in mind.

Still, the issues, described well by Neil O’Brien, the Conservative MP for Harborough, Oadby and Wigston, in these pages on Monday 24th, though worthy of consideration, are not nearly as concerning as he suggests, and should not lead the Government to junk its plans.

Getting the details right on local control, building beautiful, and sharing the benefits of development with local people could go a long way to making existing homeowners, especially in the countryside, happy, while preserving the most important parts of the proposals.

All of the UK cities with the highest paying jobs, lowest unemployment, and fastest economic growth have severe housing shortages. Governments of the past ten years have been cognisant of this growing problem, and in the Planning White Paper we have our first real attempt at alleviating the problem. Achieving it would greatly reduce housing costs, allowing people to move better jobs, afford space for more kids, and avoid painfully long commutes.

It would also create a huge building boom – generating exactly the sort of outdoor jobs of all skill levels that would help generate a lasting post-Covid recovery. Our last large such boom, during the 1930s, pulled Britain out of the Great Depression, added an entire percentage point to GDP growth every year, and made its architect, Neville Chamberlain, temporarily the most popular politician in the UK.

The White Paper would do this by streamlining (yet raising) developer contributions, and implementing a zoning regime that takes Britain closer to the system it lived under for practically all of its history until 1947.

This system would have local authorities divide areas into three zones, one (‘Growth’) allowing almost all development, without specific planning permission, if it meets regulation and follows design codes. Another (‘Renewal’) would give locals some ability to extend their properties up. A third (‘Protection’) would place the same restrictions on development than today.

Governments have complemented planning policy with assessments of housing ‘need’ since 1963. On the same day that it released the White Paper, the Government previewed part of an early version of a new algorithm for calculating how many houses an area ‘needs’. The main change is that prices – the best indicator of scarcity in any given area – play a much bigger role in the calculations than before.

However, in his ConHome article, O’Brien points out that, at least using this early and incomplete version of the new algorithm, these new assessments do not seem to square with the Government’s overall goals to add more houses where they are most needed.

It’s true, he says, that numbers for the North East, North West, and Yorkshire come down from where they are using the existing algorithm. But within all regions (other than London and the South East), the targets for cities fall, while the targets for the shires rise. O’Brien reasonably thinks this may cause problems if those in these rural areas feel these higher targets are too much.

As he mentions, these figures will change substantially in the final version of the algorithm, especially because it will, unlike the present one, take into account greenbelt restrictions. Many of the areas O’Brien highlights as facing increased targets lie partly or completely within a green belt (e.g. the Ribble Valley), and the White Paper makes clear that these areas will ultimately see substantial downward adjustments in their targets to account for it. Nonetheless matter this remains a source of concern, especially for rural areas with no green belt.

O’Brien’s points are likely to be more clearly addressed by the Government in the final version – especially for areas such as Leicestershire that are rural, yet have no green belt to prompt downrating. Indeed, Christopher Pincher, the Housing Minister, said as much here on Conservative Home.

The Government seems to agree with O’Brien that the greatest potential for development lies in increasing density within existing cities and at the edges of cities, not through mass housebuilding on England’s green and pleasant land.

There are some other areas in which the Government can assuage concerns substantially by getting a few details just right. Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Green Belt will, naturally, come under Protection. But the decision between Protection and Renewal (as the White Paper frames the other two zones), and the exact contours of Renewal, should be driven by local input.

Locals tend to oppose things that are foisted on them. However, huge value can be created by housebuilding in some places. The plot of one £800,000 bungalow near Summertown in North Oxford could instead accommodate two or even three £2 million four-storey townhouses.

If one homeowner in a street does this, and does it poorly, it’s a burden on their neighbours. But if we let the residents of that street collectively decide whether to allow it on every plot in the street, development is controlled and driven by those who stand to benefit – and lose out. Only streets that want to build up and out – either for more space for their family, a room to rent to a lodger, or to sell on, downsize, and have something to give to their children – will decide to.

As it stands, the White Paper says, “We are also interested in whether there is scope to extend and adapt the concept so that very small areas – such as individual streets – can set their own rules for the form of development which they are happy to see.”

The final version of this could end up as a scheme where individual streets can decide to opt between the ‘Protection’ or ‘Renewal’ categories. This would have those in ‘Renewal’ setting their own rules for plot usage, height, materials, and design, subject to rules to stop overshadowing that affects their neighbours. If the final version goes in this direction, it could take a huge amount of the sting out of the proposals for anxious suburbs and shires.

Locals are justifiably concerned about preserving the beauty of their local area. Britons are also concerned about the beauty of the country as a whole. So much new building has been ugly over the past 80 or so years that it often feels that we are simply not capable of or willing to build attractive buildings today.

Such pessimism is unwarranted. Policy Exchange’s work with Sir Roger Scruton on the Building Beautiful agenda showed us that it was indeed possible to build attractively in the modern era – and that that’s what the public wants.

It is very encouraging that Planning for the Future, the White Paper, makes very significant reference to this ‘building beautiful’ agenda. In many ways the paper is one that Scruton himself would have favoured, and it is clearly inspired by him and his work, including with Jack Airey in Policy Exchange research.

Getting the details perfectly right is also important here. This means embedding design codes (which determine what buildings can look like aesthetically) into all three of the zone types, and making sure these are popular through local plebiscites. It may also mean more extensive policies, such as retrospective approval voting to see what locals think about major projects – hopefully incentivising developers and architects to produce work that is popular.

Major planning reform of this nature was always going to meet objections. But politics is the art of building coalitions: reform programmes succeed when they can convince enough people that their changes will make the country richer, happier, and better. They fail when they cannot. The Government’s housing reforms have the potential to deliver so much value that many doubters can be brought round. Achieving this means getting the details right.

16 comments for: Ben Southwood: The Government’s housing plans need to be refined – not scrapped. They will work if the detail is got right.

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