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How to build houses and save the countryside

How to build houses and save the countryside

There was much to admire in the prime minister’s recent speech on housing that heralded a revision of the planning rules. Theresa May called homelessness in our rich country ‘a source of national shame’ and she is right. She pledged to increase house building, but to do so without ‘destroying the country we love’. And she attacked big developers for gaming the system and putting dividends and executive pay before building more homes. As I read the speech, I mentally ticked off many of the arguments in my new book, How to build houses and save the countryside, which brings together many of the debates CPRE had in my time as its chief executive.

As a country, the past few decades have seen us pull off the difficult trick of building too few homes while losing too much countryside. Unfortunately, however, the policy changes announced by the PM are unlikely to change this. They are well-intentioned – and indeed, use much of CPRE’s language - but they do not go far enough.

How can we do better?

For years, debates on housing and planning were largely shaped by free market think-tanks arguing for planning liberalisation: ‘Free up the Green Belt, let builders build, and the houses will come’ was the tone set. Planning was progressively weakened, but successive reforms had little impact on housing supply. That is because the principal cause of our failure to build enough new homes was not planning restrictions, but the fact that the state more or less stopped building houses 40 years ago. It is extraordinary that clever people could look at our failure to build enough homes and conclude that planning, rather than the collapse in public house building, must be to blame.

The advocates of planning liberalisation ignored the fact that for 30 years after the Second World War, when more than 200,000 homes were built every year in the UK, local authorities built at least 100,000 of them. Between 1951 and 1979, 48% of new homes were built for social rent. After 1979, local authorities virtually ceased to build and neither the private nor housing association sectors increased their output enough to make up the shortfall. Thus the housing crisis.

Where the planning system can be blamed for our failure to build enough houses is in its failure to control rising land prices. Planning has not been too restrictive, it has been too weak. The 1947 planning settlement had two sides. Its role in constraining development is well known and explains why it is under attack in some quarters. But it also ensured a plentiful supply of development land at reasonable prices.

Between 1946 and 1970, work started on 32 new towns, which are now home to 2.76 million people, 4.3% of UK households. New town development corporations bought land at agricultural prices and used the uplift in value that came with planning permission to fund the development. When work started on developing Milton Keynes, land contributed only around 1% of the cost of a new home. It now accounts for over half the cost of most new homes. The same principle of capturing the uplift in land value can, of course, be used for sustainable urban extensions and brownfield urban developments.

There is enough suitable brownfield land in England to build at least a million new homes, as CPRE has repeatedly demonstrated - and the supply is constantly replenished. We should use it to save countryside, improve urban areas and save carbon. But developers prefer to build on virgin greenfield sites as they are easier to develop and more lucrative, and the current system allows them to do so. Sajid Javid, the housing minister, has promised a more ‘muscular’ state, but he appears to be more eager to take on ‘nimby’ protestors than to foster serious competition to the few volume house builders who currently dominate the market.

What is needed is new housing providers, and the state – what Green Alliance trustee Mariana Mazzucato calls the entrepreneurial state – should be fostering them. Regardless of how much the government pokes and cajoles them, the big builders have neither the means nor desire to build on the scale needed. We need new private sector providers – SMEs, custom builders, factory built homes – and fostering them will take concerted government action.

The government should also support a serious programme of council house building – many Conservative councils are calling for the right to build – and fund housing associations to build social housing. There is nothing un-Tory about this programme: Conservative governments built plenty of houses before 1979. If we could combine Harold Macmillan’s commitment to quantity and Nye Bevan’s concern about quality and place we would go a long way to solving the housing crisis and taking the sting out of development battles. 

As for those fighting to protect the countryside from more executive homes and anodyne, anywhere-housing estates, they have nothing to be ashamed of. My book makes the case for some new housing on greenfield sites, but if we are to lose countryside, let’s make sure we lose it to beautiful, well-thought out, energy efficient developments that do something to help those in housing need. That should not be too much to ask, should it?

Buy the book: How to build houses and save the countryside

Shaun Spiers is now the Executive Director of Green Alliance

It is extraordinary that clever people could look at our failure to build enough homes and conclude that planning, rather than the collapse in public house building, must be to blame.




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