Nicholas Boys Smith is Director of Create Streets and Chair of the Government’s Office for Place.
“Was none who would be foremost/
To lead such dire attack:/
But those behind cried ‘Forward!’/
And those before cried ‘Back!’/
And backward now and forward/
Wavers the deep array;/
And on the tossing sea of steel,/
To and fro the standards reel;/
And the victorious trumpet-peal/
Dies fitfully away.”
Horatius, Thomas Babington Macaulay
Who would be in charge of planning reform and meeting our desperate housing needs? The next generation, cruelly shut out of the homeowning democracy, cry “forward”. Meanwhile the declining majority of us who are well housed, too often cry “back”.
The local politics are vicious: those who vote in by-elections, general elections and local elections vote “no”. And who can blame politicians if, just occasionally, they are tempted to listen? We all know the answer (build more houses) but, somehow, we never get there.
Meanwhile the lack of sufficient homes in good places clogs up the labour market, retards economic growth, probably makes us less happy (a theme for the forthcoming Restitch Summit) and even enhances the unsustainable weight we exert upon the planet.
Do we face the same fate as Lars Porsena’s calamitous attack upon Rome in Macaulay’s schoolboy epic, Horatius; of failing to achieve what should be blindingly simple? More than one politician has been cruelly speared in the melee.
There have been a quiver-full of White Papers and relevant Acts over the last 20 years. Can one more help? The latest White Paper, on Levelling Up, came in February and the latest Bill came last week, safely after the local elections.
It is more ambitious than some of its predecessors, less apparently radical than others and, for the first time, marries meeting housing demand firmly to the need to regenerate our “left behind” towns and places.
Will it go the way of all flesh, as too many of its predecessors have, or will it have a long-term impact? Here are some “in flight” comments on why the Bill matters and on what it says. Full disclosure: it is 338 pages long and I have certainly not understood them all yet. I’ve also written some of the papers that appear to have influenced it, so may not be entirely objective.
First some points on context.
- Never forget that, for all its high ideals, the English planning system is highly regressive. Ambitious in its morals but anarchic in its mores, English planning speaks of progress but is regressive in practice. Its high risk, high up-front cost, discretionary model is almost unique in comparative terms, breaks pretty much all tenants of good regulation and has created an oligopoly. We have the most concentrated development sector with the smallest proportion of SMEs or self-build. The current system has rich defenders. Ultimately, they need to be faced down.
- We need more homes. A smaller proportion of people born between 1981 and 2000 are homeowners, at this life stage, than for any previous generation since 1926. And their rent payments have increased from 10 per cent of net income 30 years ago to around 30 per cent now. This has enhanced generational inequality on a seismic scale. As Iain Macleod, put it: “You cannot ask men to stand on their own two feet if you give them no ground to stand on.” Is it surprising that the politics of so many of the educated urban young are becoming so flippantly revolutionary? What do they have to lose?
- If we don’t fundamentally change the politics on new housing then we will never win. Michael Gove has coined a typically catchy acronym: BIDEN. Communities will support new housing if they are confident that it will be beautiful, have the right infrastructure, respond to local democracy, enrich the environment and support their neighbourhoods. This list is about right and is matched by my research into why people oppose new housing: there are many reasons but, at the heart, is a now inbuilt and firm cultural assumption that development will make existing place worse and carry a high level of risk for existing residents’ quality of life. 60 per cent of the public support more homes in principle. But only two per cent trust developers in practice. Only seven per cent trust planners. We shave a big problem and a generational requirement to ensure that fewer people fear development.
- Big simple problems never have big simple solutions. And meeting housing need certainly does not. Like it or not, we cannot ‘turn off’ the current system or our reliance on volume housebuilders. The trick is trialling many new ways in which existing home-owners, small firms, community and neighbourhood groups and technical innovators can create new homes and good places without the disastrously high levels of risk, delay and the up-front costs that shut out most small builders or self-builders.
And some tentative points about the bill itself.
- The bill is trying to fix local plans. As the late Sir Roger Scruton and I observed in our final repot of the Building Better Building Better Commission, the current English plan-making system in England is broken. It is not reflecting local preferences, and is neither timely nor effective. 61 per cent of councils don’t have an up-to-date local plan. Too many plans are over-ambitious but repetitive, opaque and unclear. They have spiralled out of local political control. They don’t set clear requirements, but reserve the right to opine on an unpredictable case by case basis. This is the worst possible situation: the state’s involvement is not setting quality standards, but is acting as a barrier to investment and development. The Bill sets out at least four ways (and probably more) to improve local plans; by making them more clearly subservient to national policy, by making them quicker to create; by piloting ‘street votes’ to allow streets to vote on local intensification and by requiring more clearly visual statements of what is expected (‘design codes’) rather than unhelpful requirements for ‘good design’ which are a lawyer’s charter, and which too readily diverge from what people actually like and want.
- The Bill is more radical than it sounds. It does not “talk the talk” of radical reform but, make no mistake, these are potentially very big changes. As one planning barrister blogged last week, ‘it’s a radically different approach to what we have now.’
- The Bill is right to link housing and ‘levelling up’, but the sequencing is going to be very hard. The problem in the left behind neighbourhoods of our poorer regions is not lack of homes but lack of demand. The ‘economics of attraction’ are broken. The Bill will work if more people want to live, work, start businesses, and raise families in towns with little current “place attraction”; if people born there with “get up and go“ instead choose to “get up and stay.” Better transport, schools and places are all essential to re-starting that virtuous circle of place. It will not be easy, but only this will take the pressure off the Cheshams, Cheams, Chiswicks and Chelseas of the South. The path to housing affordability in Sussex and Greater London runs through Sunderland and Grimsby.
- As the Bill progresses the test must be: will it make it easier for more self-builders, local builders, market entrants, innovators and neighbourhood groups to create new homes and beautiful places? The Bill will work if it makes it far, far easier for the millions of people who own a home, or with enough wherewithal and capital to build one, to become part of the solution to our housing needs rather than part of the problem. We cannot continue to remain so dependent on so small a number of developers, experts at dropping boxes in a field (they call it ‘greenfield development’) or at erecting tower block leviathans in constrained former railway goods yards (they call it ‘brownfield development’). Our towns need to relearn how to intensify gently, gradually and beautifully more widely. And with neighbourly consent.
Let’s not kid ourselves. This is not easy. But one thing is certain: we need to find ways to work with local people not against them. More people need to cry “forward” not “back.” Over a generation, the assumption needs to become that new development will cherish the neighbourhood not despoil it. The problem is national. But the answer must be local.