Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.
ConHome has kindly allowed me another article as part of the debate on planning, in relation to Henry Hill’s pieces. I am grateful for the opportunity.
Supporters of a planning “revolution” broadly argue three things. First, house prices in the South are overheated because demand far outstrips supply, so we must build more houses. Second, the North doesn’t need more housing. Third, communities should be deprived of the right to object to development.
There are three flawed assumptions in these arguments.
First, building more homes alone does not solve the affordability problem. There are many other factors, such type of home, interest rates, etc. Evidence? Despite a strong increase in supply from 2013, average house prices have continued to rise – going up 10.2 percent between March 2020 and March 2021 alone. Reversing just this most recent 12-month rise using only housing supply would take 20 years, according to one estimate.
Therefore, there are two routes of action. Either flood the South with so much housing that you force the price down, or find alternatives. The first is economically, environmentally and socially disastrous – as well as politically suicidal – and the problem with political suicides is, as Winston Churchill noted, you live to regret them. The alternative, which I support, requires finding a new approach.
Second, planning “revolutionaries” argue that the relative affordability and lower demand in the North means a) fewer homes need to be built, and b) infrastructure support for housebuilding is not needed.
However, household projections are not an indicator of housing demand but a representation of how many homes are required should current trends continue. In plain English, if you want to change things – and that’s fundamentally what Levelling Up is about – don’t base assumptions on how the current planning methodology works because it primarily reinforces historic trends and projects them into the future. It does not encourage new thinking. The current methodology, 2020 Standard Method, is better than the pre-2020 version and increases targets in Northern cities – as a result of direct ministerial intervention – but it retains the same conceptual flaw.
Third, this model deprives the North (apologies for the generalised terms) of infrastructure funding and helps suppress demand for housing, according to property experts Knight Frank, which explains why, in a valuable document, here. UK public expenditure on housing in the North is already only 17.8 per cent of the total; down from 24.5 percent in 1998-99. The Housing Infrastructure Fund allocated the equivalent of £115 per head in the East of England but only £4 per head than in Yorkshire and Humber, according to Onward research.
Put in plain English, focusing house building on the South, with the accompanying construction and support jobs, infrastructure spend and household spending, becomes self-reinforcing and self-defeating. It continues – reductio ad absurdum – with the hamster wheel of unsustainable greenfield development in the overheated South. It is, in the words of the 1980s band The Talking Heads, a Road to Nowhere.
Even the Government now admits this.
To overcome market failure, we need to throw money at brownfield clean-up and affordable homes. To see Levelling Up as an investment in rebuilding communities and regions. One option would be to tax greenfield sites and use the money for brownfield clean-up. Sadly, the chances of “pricing in” the true cost of greenfield is slim. However, planning should be environment-led.
Third, Mr Hill says communities should not be able to “stymie expansion.” To me, that sounds like an arrogant way of dealing with people. Like most conservatives, I am fed up with those who try to silence others. I never thought I’d hear it from a ConservativeHome columnist, though.
It is also self-defeating. Communities help development happen, as long as they can shape it. One initial study, albeit limited, found that areas with a neighbourhood plan saw a 10 per cent increase in housing allocations. Therefore, working with communities gets better results than treating them as the planning equivalent of a foie gras goose, with evermore housing shoved down their gullets.
However, the development that communities need is not what developers want. An example: 80 per cent of greenfield applications in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) are approved. Yet the majority of property built is “executive homes”, not first-time buyer properties. How on earth does this help first-time buyers? Answer: it doesn’t. Therefore, planning needs to be community-led.
In his previous piece, Mr Hill dismissed community champions as NIMBYs. “Seeing down” voters is dumb in a democracy, as sadly I fear many councillors and some MPs will eventually find out.
So summing up, we hope that the Planning Bill will move to a levelling-up led, community-led and environment-led agenda. We fear that it will contain the same flawed assumptions. I have made a case for change. But we need evolution, not revolution. Ripping up local democracy is a fool’s errand. Venerating a self-reinforcing methodology is a dead end.
We need to do planning better. Let’s start now. I wish ConHome readers a good weekend.