Ben Southwood is Head of Housing, Transport and Urban Space at Policy Exchange
We have been here before. This is not the first time that a Government has, after years of housing troubles, hired advisers who really understand things, appointed a Housing Minister who ‘gets it’, and tried to tackle the planning system. All these previous attempts largely failed, from the late 1980s onwards. But I have a hunch that the latest wave might succeed – because of an appreciation of localism.
We really have been here before. The think tank paper Nimbyism: The disease and the cure is not a 2020 publication, but a 1990 one. It diagnosed our dilemma pretty much the same way as a newspaper column might today: everyone knows the country needs more homes, but no one wants those new homes plonked down next to them.
Indeed my father, who lives in the London suburbs, will tell you that our housing shortage is the country’s biggest problem, immediately before pointing out how the development of his neighbour’s plot killed two of his best mature trees, and caused months of constant vibrations, eight hours a day.
1990 was not even the beginning. Nicholas Ridley, the resolute free-marketeer Northumbrian who popularised the term NIMBY, was responsible for housing policy under the Thatcher government from 1987 to 1989. Ridley believed that planning was the problem, and that liberalisation was the answer. As well as trying to loosen up the rules, he attempted to use his powers as Minister to approve as many developments as possible – getting successful appeals against planning rejections up to their second highest rate ever.
Alas, this turned out to be extremely unpopular. When it was discovered that even Ridley himself opposed housing near his own home, and after a backbench revolt led by SANE Planning, Thatcher moved him over to Trade and Industry.
In the 30 years since, the problems have by and large got worse. Homeownership, accounting for age, peaked in the early 1990s. House price to income ratios have gone up dramatically. Even more people are delaying getting married, settling down, and having children. We have never managed, post war, to add net housing space to our fastest-growing cities at the rate we did in the 1820s or the 1930s. In the medium to long run, this will doom the Conservative party, whose election results seem more and more determined by homeownership in an area.
Many governments over the years have absorbed the same evidence and arguments. The Barker Review in 2004 confirmed them all, and once again Governments took this on board. The Cameron Government also grasped the problem. Like the current Government, it appointed Policy Exchange’s then Head of Housing as the housing special advisor in the Number Ten Policy Unit, and worked to unblock supply. Some things have improved since 2010, but the housing shortages in key places have got even worse.
Why did all of these Governments fail to really make a dent in the problem?
The fundamental reason is that they failed to win the support of existing communities for development near them. New Labour sought to dodge this problem by taking power out of the hands of local authorities and giving it to regional planning bodies, accountable only to the central government.
But in the long run, this doesn’t help. Voters choose their MPs too, and if they hate the housebuilding happening around them, they will eventually force the central government to stop it. This is indeed what has happened, with successive governments scaling back initially ambitious housebuilding targets.
It’s a simple thing for economists to model. The way we currently do things, those who benefit from new homes is everyone who might want to move to an area. Each new development makes it a tiny bit easier for them to move somewhere. But each new development makes things a whole lot worse for people living nearby.
So you have a huge group of people who benefit a tiny amount – so little they don’t even realise it – and a smaller group of people who see themselves as losing out a huge amount. This means an active group of opponents willing to argue and vote, and no strong proponents.
Why do I think the current Government may have seen a way around this?
If you read the Planning White Paper, which is the document summing up this Government’s aims on planning and housing, several themes are obvious. For my purposes, the key theme is local consent. You can see this in their plans to give locals more control over design. No, design isn’t everything. But their drive to make things ‘provably popular’ is a clear indication that they grasp the fundamental condition of a durable system of housebuilding: they understand that if they deliver a housing reform that local communities hate, it won’t last.
Indeed, at Policy Exchange’s 2018 summer party, Theresa May, now one of the key opponents to planning reform said ‘I’ve long said that design quality is, I think, actually one of the keys to new housing’, referencing the ‘Building Beautiful’ movement.
The most exciting element of the Planning White Paper for me was their suggestion that they might go ‘down’ instead of ‘up’, giving streets more powers to control the sort of development they want to see, as we proposed in Strong Suburbs. This might mean keeping things just as they are, or it might mean turning semi detached houses into a terrace, so everyone has more space for family, or even a lodger. It might just mean neighbours all agreeing to replace uPVC windows with timber.
Robert Conquest said that everyone is conservative about what they know best. The reason people are NIMBYs is that their neighbourhood is one of the things they know best. This instinct is not just reasonable, but inevitable, and governments of the past have inevitably failed when they have attempted to control things from the top, without the consent of the governed. I think this Government might just have found the alternative that works.