The planning debate is quite possibly the most important domestic battle that this Government will fight. Cracking this country’s broken housing market and giving young people a chance to own property and start families is Boris Johnson’s best shot at a transformational legacy (and a generation of Conservative hegemony).
Doing this will not be easy. It risks angering a substantial chunk of the traditional Tory coalition. This could be especially dangerous in seats the party is defending against the Liberal Democrats, who are reportedly preparing to disregard their progressive pretensions to go all-out against planning reform.
It is thus no surprise that parts of the Party are determined to insist we can solve the housing crisis without troubling the base. Loudest and proudest of these is Bob Seely, who at the weekend wrote for this site about why I was supposedly wrong to insist, as I did the month before, that ‘the Government must deliver more homes, and they must be in the South‘.
Despite this, I stand by my argument, and with the make-or-break votes on planning reform legislation still to come it is worth setting out why. There’s no need to relitigate every detail of the last two pieces, they’re there to be read. But Bob asks more than once whether or not he’s ‘missing something’. Let’s find out
I described the insistence that ‘levelling up’ requires us to redirect housebuilding to the Red Wall as “breathtakingly disingenuous”, and nothing in Seely’s response dissuades me of that.
Whilst it is certainly true that some of those constituencies will need some housebuilding – where doesn’t? – it remains absurd to pretend that access to housing is a major structural impediment holding back economic development in ‘left behind’ bits of the country. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that are already affordable that played a big role in the Conservative breakthrough here in 2019!
And how can it possibly be the case that “a dozen midland and northern cities have seen absolute declines in population” need more houses? Logically, they have a surplus already.
Then we come to infrastructure:
“The Government has said that housing will be pump-primed with infrastructure funding; ergo: the more infrastructure projects in the South, the less in the Red Wall. One can’t spend the same money twice, all the time, as we are beginning to find out.”
Any infrastructure spending linked to new building in the South is intended specifically to offset the impact of building houses in the South. If we moved that building northwards, it would still be linked to offsetting the impact of the new houses – they would just be new houses the area didn’t need, and a glut that might push existing homeowners into negative equity.
That the North of England needs infrastructure spending – on rail transport, broadband internet, and more besides – is undeniable. But that doesn’t mean it needs this infrastructure investment. The only way this money could be usefully spent in the North is if it were uncoupled from development and we didn’t build the houses. (Will this be a theme?)
In a similar vein, what about housebuilding targets? The Government was fiercely criticised for its ‘mutant algorithm’ that tried to force southern councils to build. But Bob objects even to the headline 300,000 per annum figure:
“If Boris Johnson’s target – which, by the way, is completely arbitrary – had been 250,000 rather than 300,000 homes a year, we would already be on target.”
It is indisputable that we could more easily hit our targets if we lowered them to whatever our present rate of housebuilding is, although I’m not sure what this proves. There is also no argument offered as to why 250,000 is any less arbitrary than 300,000, save that it would mean we wouldn’t have to build the houses. (This is a theme.)
The Government’s case is simple: that house prices in the South are so overheated because demand far outstrips supply, so we need more houses. The current 300,000 target is arbitrary principally because the actual number needed to make housing generally affordable is higher.
This is a common argument deployed by people hoping to conjure up a straw man of cartoon-villain developers. Whilst there are no doubt some bad players, it is also a fact that ‘land banking’ is in large part an artefact of our dysfunctional planning system.
Ant Breach at the Centre for Cities covers this in detail, but the short version is that there are so many points of failure for an application that securing excess permissions is one of the few ways developers can secure the reliable flow of work their businesses need.
Home Ownership and Local Democracy
These last two points are deeply entwined, and cut to the very heart of the Tory clash of worldviews over planning. The anti-development case is distilled into near its purest essence in this section of Bob’s piece:
“In a place like the Isle of Wight, that means building houses which are genuinely affordable (so yes, Council or Housing Association), in sensitive numbers, in a local style, in existing communities, for our local people and with their support.”
Much to unpack there, but the obvious place to start is the eyebrow-raising suggestion that the only route to affordable housing is one form or another of state tenantry.
The top of Bob’s article proclaimed a shared understanding of the importance of expanding home-ownership, both to the fortunes of the Conservative Party and the futures of the individuals given a chance to get on the property ladder. What happened to that? Very “one rule for thee”.
But even more problematic, if we’re honest, is the dogmatic insistence that any and all new homes must be “for our local people” (or “their kids”). Bob strongly objects to the word ‘NIMBY’. In another piece (a response to another of mine) he offered the term ‘local patriots’. It paints a portrait of people defending their patch against villainous developers.
Thing is, local people are not the only stakeholders in the planning debate. That’s the entire root of the problem, and why appeals to the supremacy of “local democracy” fall short. The nation needs houses. It needs them in the South of England, where the demand is. And the Government has a duty to represent the interests both of the nation as a whole, and the generation of people who deserve a chance to own their own home but are locked out of the market by a cripplingly restrictive planning system.
Towns, villages, London boroughs – none of these are islands, entire of themselves. They are not sovereign. The case for building new homes in them is not simply a matter of whether or not it pleases those who already live there. That is not how those towns and boroughs came into being in the first place, after all. It is about whether other people deserve a chance to live there, and the nation needs the space.
Yes, that should involve building an appropriate mix of attractive and appropriately-styled properties, and investing in necessary infrastructure alongside development. But that does not mean that communities should be able to stymie expansion as effectively as they can at present. The population is growing, and our towns and villages must grow with it. How is a fair question; if is not.