Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and a Fellow in Urban Design at the University of Buckingham.
No one could say there will be no choice of competing national visions on 8th June. From Brexit with bacon to Brexit denied, from free-market corporatism to soaking the rich, nearly all conceivable political dishes will be served up by, at least nominally, major parties.
But on housebuilding, all flavours are oddly similar. ‘We need to build more homes; we will build more homes; we need more council homes; we will build more council homes’ runs the standard argument. Great. So far gone is the affordability crisis in much of the south that, whatever your politics, non-market-price homes are necessary to provide homes to people who need them in the short-term. Sure, there is a very major difference on right-to-buy. Labour would ban it – seeing social tenancies as a desirable end-point. Conservatives would encourage more – seeing it as a stepping stone to home ownership. But the physical ambition is identical.
The problem is that the public debate about how to achieve this – and about the British planning and development system – nearly always misses the point. It focuses on symptoms, not causes, misunderstands house price economics and regards the ultimate problem as one of supply and demand, not of politics. It is also grossly ignorant of the history of planning and of experiences in other countries. Too often the debate is polarised as one of ‘there is too much planning’ (the free market right) versus ‘planners save us from rapacious developers’ (the left).
In fact, most countries find it necessary for the state to mediate between mutually-impacting land rights. The critical issue is how do you do so without choking off sufficient supply or destroying support for new housing. And this is the real question: not ‘how do you build more homes?’ but ‘how do you make new homes more popular?’ Solve that and, ultimately, other issues will vanish like ghosts at cockcrow.
To be able to fix it, here are four key points to understand.
Firstly, never forget how odd the British planning system is. Socialist in its scope but very English and common-law in its application, it is both more ambitious and less predictable than nearly all comparable systems. This leads to more uncertainty, higher planning risk and much higher barriers to entry. Most European and North American rules-based approaches give landowners more certainty about what will be acceptable. (This can come with its own challenges but at the least seems better to align demand with supply). The British system should be less odd, less ambitious and more predictable. This reduces planning risk, encourages smaller firms and prevents bigger firms bullying their way through it.
Secondly, society is changing. People no long believe that the man (it usually was a man) in Whitehall or the Town Hall knows best. They expect to influence what happens near where they live and work. And (our research shows) they are more inclined to support development when they are genuinely involved – not just in a tawdry and ersatz PR exercise. The British system should make this easier to achieve, not lock communities into a combative and over-detailed ‘design and then consult’ game of attritional warfare.
Thirdly, the IT revolution is making it easier to build great places. It is easier, quicker and cheaper to access the views of a wider number of people via social media and online polling and engagement platforms. It is also becoming easier, thanks to big data, to research associations between urban form, design and beauty with wellbeing, support and long term value. And the answers are getting clearer. A walkable, green, structure of human scale, blocks and streets that clearly define the public and private realm with a sense of place and which most people find beautiful is, put simpler, better for our health and a wiser long-term investment. It is also, guess what, more popular with the public. There is wisdom in crowds. Sadly, today, too few new developments achieve this. As a very senior industry expert put it to me only this week, “90 per cent of it is awful.”
Fourth, many of the rules that we do have (particularly in London, where national requirements are thickly and foolishly gold-plated) aren’t very good. They make it harder to deliver the type of finely grained, high density traditional and walkable town that many people love – and will pay extra for. As the president-elect of RIBA put it; “it’s actually quite hard to design streets which are streets in the sense that citizens will recognise.” Polling and pricing data also consistently shows that too many modern developments, once over their new-build ‘boost’, do not achieve the same levels of desirability or resident satisfaction as their historic predecessors. It is surely beyond ridiculous that two-thirds of respondents say they would not even consider buying a newly-built home.
We need to undergo a direct planning revolution to give staggeringly greater focus to what people like and will support. We need a more visual set of provably popular forms and housing patterns (technically known as form-based codes or protocols) which can be pre-approved and delivered with more speed, efficiency and certainty thus lowering the financing costs and barriers to entry.
How do we do this? If you’ll forgive some planning jargon, here are some practicable next steps that are doable and would seriously start moving the gauge in the right direction:
The good news is that in February’s Housing White Paper there were some axiomatically important announcements that began to push very much in this direction. They should be seminal in the next government’s agenda.
When the 2017 election is forgotten and Brexit is old news, ensuring that we are building enough homes which people will support and where they will thrive will remain an aim of existential importance to fairness and opportunity in modern Britain. Neighbourhood plans should be but the first step in a direct planning revolution which removes planning power from property funds and high officials and returns it, where it belongs, to the rest of us.