David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
There are lots of good arguments for building more homes where people want to live, and there are lots of people making those arguments.
Younger generations are denied the opportunities those of my age and older had to get on the housing ladder at a relatively young age. Instead, they are forced to spend a large part of their income of rent, making it hard to save for a deposit – unless receiving financial support from parents. Consequently, building more homes would help address intergenerational unfairness and a barrier to social mobility.
Granting planning permission for residential development increases the value of agricultural land by a hundred times. It is also the case that when people move from places with low productivity to places of high productivity (and housing demand is generally highest where productivity is highest), their productivity goes up. Consequently, building more homes would help improve economic efficiency and productivity.
And, from the perspective of the Conservative Party, the consensus is that home ownership is a good indicator of a propensity to vote Conservative. Consequently, building more homes will bring long term political benefits for the Party.
For all these reasons, it has been a consistent objective of the Government since 2010 to increase housebuilding, and the consistent opinion within Government is that the greatest impediment to more housebuilding was the planning system. It was too slow, too uncertain and too easy for existing residents to block developments. The answer, it was concluded, was planning reform.
So would begin a series of fraught discussions in Whitehall. The Treasury would push for the boldest of liberalising options. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (to use its current name) was usually a little more cautious, although Sajid Javid was an enthusiastic reformer. The Prime Minister, or at least Theresa May, would be very nervous of going too far, and the Whips would foresee a whole host of problems.
The conclusion of this process would result in incremental reforms. But the fact that very similar criticisms of the planning system are made by Ministers today as were made throughout the Cameron and May Governments suggests that previous efforts at planning reform have not fully addressed the issue.
We are now going through this process again, with the Government proposing a Planning Bill in the Queen’s Speech. The Bill has not yet been published, but it is already clear that the move towards zonal planning will provoke considerable opposition from the Conservative backbenchers.
Nor is this opposition doomed to failure even with an 80 seat majority: the Government has already had to abandon the algorithm that had allocated new houses in a way which was perceived as being unfair by Conservative MPs. Unpopular local plans contributed to some Conservative losses in the recent local elections, and it was striking that Ed Davey chose planning as the topic for his question at Wednesday’s PMQs. Home County MPs will be wary.
Before rushing to condemn these MPs, put yourself in their position. They represent constituencies where the population has already increased significantly over the last 30 years. In normal times, the roads are congested and the peak-time trains are standing room only. Good schools are often oversubscribed and GP surgery lists full. Many of your constituents moved out of London because they wanted access to the countryside and to live in a town or a village, not part of a suburban sprawl.
At which point, the Government – your Government – proposes to build vast numbers of houses in your patch. Your constituents are articulate, engaged and, before you know it, organised. They will make informed and plausible objections to specific proposals; they will apply population projections to the existing infrastructure and highlight its inadequacy. Some of the most prominent campaigners will be your local councillors and association officers who remind you of the promises you made when selected as the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate to put the interests of the constituency first. What would you do?
There is a risk that we go round in circles on planning reform. Bold proposals are made. Strong public opposition is provoked. MPs are responsive to constituency concerns. The Whips get nervous. Bold proposals are dropped. Commentators fulminate about the timidity of politicians until someone in Government decides that it is time for bold proposals to be made.
Rather than bemoaning this process, if the Government is serious about building more homes, it needs to find a way of breaking this cycle. As Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute – pessimistic about the chances of substantial reform – has argued, local residents need to be incentivised to want development. We need to think more about what those incentives might be.
It is already the case that the Government has got much better at using infrastructure spending to support housebuilding in high demand areas through the Single Housing Infrastructure Fund, which Rishi Sunak expanded in the 2020 Budget with an additional £1.1 billion expected to unlock up to 70,000 homes, on top of the previous £4 billion, which is expected to unlock up to 340,000 homes.
(As an aside, I should declare an interest here, having initiated the original scheme. On a quiet August day in 2016, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and with private office trying to find something useful for me to do in recess, I visited the construction site for the M1-A5 link road. I was told how it was going to benefit the residents of Dunstable, because their High Street would not be regularly grid-locked and allow thousands of homes to be built on land that now had excellent access to the road network.
The project – including the housebuilding – had strong local support. I went back to the Treasury that afternoon, and asked officials to look at creating a fund for which local authorities and local enterprise partnerships could bid for infrastructure funding that would enable more homes to be built. In the Budget three months later, the Housing Infrastructure Fund was announced. Forgive the bragging, but that construction site visit probably resulted in my most useful day in nine years as a minister.)
Improving transport infrastructure and community services will often be necessary, but it will rarely be sufficient. I would go further, and seek to address concerns that countryside is being lost. Often, this will be unexceptional farming land, little used by the local population. If greenfield land of this sort is going to be lost, we should consider a policy whereby for every acre of land used for housing, let us say, two adjacent acres are set aside to be turned into attractive common land – woodlands or meadows – that can become a valued amenity for new and existing residents.
Any benefits of this type come at a cost, but if we are to persuade communities that more development is required, we are going to have to win their support (or, at least, the support of significant numbers). This does mean increasing infrastructure spending in the south east and the Oxford to Cambridge corridor which is an unfashionable cause in these days of levelling up.
But if we really want to build more houses where the demand is greatest, we are going to have to be a bit more imaginative and come forward with an offer that local MPs can sell to their constituents. Until that happens, planning reform will result in much political pain and the risk of little extra housing gain.