This land is our land

If New Labour is serious about making homes more affordable, then it should allow members of the public to buy land and build homes where they please.

James Woudhuysen

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Topics Politics

In Aldershot, Chichester and elsewhere in the UK, the Ministry of Defence is giving up six or seven sites with the potential to hold more than 7,000 homes. Connaught Barracks in Dover could provide another 500 homes, and British Waterways will release space for 15,000 units on brownfield land. The UK Department of Transport has also located hundreds of potential sites for housing, and the Department of Health 13 extra ones, on top of those it has already found.

Welcome to Homes For the Future: More Affordable, More Sustainable, the UK government’s new Green Paper, consulting us all on housing policy in England (1).

It’s good that, after years during which many on spiked called for the construction of more houses, a document put out by New Labour finally concedes that England does need more houses – and cheaper ones, too. It’s also good that housing minister Yvette Cooper now publicly calls for more land for homes, and attacks what she calls ‘the ever-decreasing handful who oppose new building’ (2).

Nevertheless, the Green Paper marks a kind of Army Surplus approach to housing. ‘Public sector land use’, New Labour’s dominating locations for new homes, turn out to be… barracks, canals, railway sidings, and turf owned by the National Health Service (NHS) or by local councils. Here we are asked to scrape the bottom of a very small barrel. In effect, the Green Paper searches for the public sector bits of the 5.5 per cent of England’s surface that is brownfield land (3).

Even conservative forces in British society have criticised the Green Paper’s target of three million new homes by 2020 as… too conservative (4). Indeed, the caution here is so great that the adjective ‘potential’ – as in Site X has the ‘potential’ for Y thousand homes – is used no fewer than 58 times in 128 mind-numbing pages. Maybe the government will meet each of its sub-targets; but it’s already saying that it may not.

The small-minded Green Paper has endless lists of possible housing sites and the agencies that will be responsible for them. Through its obsessive micromanagement of housing location and finance, the government hopes both to dynamise residential construction, and to recruit every household into a Brownista carbonista effort to save the planet from climate change.

While the Green Paper authors enthuse about ‘planning reform’ and ‘shared ownership’ (where you own only a percentage of your home), they hope that a little massaging of England’s ultra-restrictive land provision, and of the nation’s iffier-by-the-month mortgage market, can work wonders. In particular, the hope is that a tiny relaxation of planning constraints will encourage the private sector, local authorities and numerous hybrid housing vehicles and quangos to build more homes, and especially homes that are ‘affordable’.

That approach won’t work. It will mean some extra homes are built, but it will not make proper home ownership cheap. It will provide jobs for – and protracted quarrels amongst – many happy middle-class people: planners, architects, building employers and environmentalists. Yet precisely because what it is proposing amounts to a job-creating exercise in changing jurisdictions and diffusing authority, the government will find that all its eye-catching, bullet-pointed initiatives will not lower the sale price, the rent, the maintenance costs or the buildings insurance attached to a real home.

Real homes will only become affordable if, in principle, everyone can go to a farmer, buy a hectare of land for £10,000, and freely build a house there at a cost, perhaps, of just £60,000. That kind of transaction would lead to significantly lower prices than the £210,578 average asked for a home in the UK today (5). The state should stop preventing deals like this from being done. It should step back, and instead provide the infrastructure to let that house-on-a-freely-bought-hectare thrive. Overall, this new Green Paper reveals the overbearing powers of the state in relation to the land.

Ever since Clement Attlee’s Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, to buy that £10,000 hectare of land and build on it has been illegal. The capitalist state, not the popular will, determines who may build where. The state retains a complete monopoly over what land can be developed for housing and what cannot. To end house price inflation, therefore, Britain must end its state-imposed scarcity of land.

The lack of affordability that characterises Britain’s housing market is not about too many people – single-person households, divorced families, immigrants and their children – chasing too few homes. It is not simply an economic question of supply and demand. The housing market is profoundly distorted by the political intervention of the state, which imposes drastic limits on land that can be developed upon. Only a similarly drastic counter-attack on state controls, amounting to a veritable bonfire of Labour’s 25 Planning Policy Statements (PPSs), will allow housing in the UK to acquire a semblance of rationality or efficiency.

Planning reform – or planning revolution?

During his decade as chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown made endless tweaks to the tax system. Last year his friend Sir Rod Eddington adopted the same philosophy in transport: what the country needed, the ex-chief of British Airways argued, was improvements to small road junctions and to the attractiveness of walking and cycling (6). Now Hazel Blears and her department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) have got their turn. Chapter 2 of the Green Paper is titled ‘Delivery without needless delay – continuing planning reform’.

By minor liberalisations here and there, the government imagines that both public and private sectors will gain the incentive – the Green Paper mentions incentives 24 times – to build. Let’s take one example: the government’s regeneration agency, English Partnerships. The Green Paper says it ‘will launch a new national package of support for local authorities to enable them to unlock land for new housing and affordable homes and establish the quality and mix of development in their areas. This will offer clear incentives for local authorities to become pro-active partners in the delivery of new and affordable homes in their local area, creating exemplar developments, attracting new development partners into the market, and offering more consumer choice and affordable homes’.

Behind the opaque prose, the idea is that the release of bits of public sector land through the planning system could, under the watchful eye of the CLG, give a boost to housebuilders. Not so much death by a thousand cuts, as a half-alive but cadaverous monster akin to that in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – assembled from a thousand scraps.

It is very unlikely that such scraps, knitted together in joined-up government can make a difference to housebuilding.

Labour’s aim with housebuilding in England is, over nine years, to ascend from today’s annual stock increase of 185,000 to one of 240,000 (7). Yet the planning background gives little ground for optimism. In the 1980s and 90s, Margaret Thatcher’s powerful London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) smashed up council housing in the east of the nation’s capital and built a lot of tacky flats there; but it also brought Canary Wharf, a shopping centre, an airport, a light railway and 120,000 new jobs to East London. What Labour now proposes is an All England Cricket Club version of the same gambit, but much more timid.

The climate is not propitious. In the 1980s, environment secretary Michael Heseltine could ram through planning change on the ground as part of a shake-up of middle-class institutions and an attack on working-class ones. Today, Yvette Cooper, the minister for housing, affects not to know where to start. Despite the fact that Britain has innumerable geographical information systems, digital maps and databases (8), the Green Paper mentions the word ‘identify’ – as in identifying locations for housing – scores of times.

The Green Paper’s exercise in the identification of building sites is not about geography. It is just about more make-work for the myriad ‘stakeholders’ who can be found to have an interest in, or some kind of authority over, every new housing scheme. As Ian Abley has written in an article on Gordon Brown’s strategy on homes, ‘a bit more land released through the planning system will not reduce unaffordability. Only an explosion of access to greenfield land, ensuring a widespread freedom to build, will be sufficient to collapse the mass of 18.2million property values in popular owner occupation’ (9).

The CLG could commission and fund a nationwide debate about exactly which parts of the UK are really so full of natural beauty, or genuinely so much of scientific interest, or so totally essential to food production, that they should not be built on. That way, we could then go on to throw the rest of the country open for housing. We need a thorough revolution in planning, not piecemeal reform (10).

If people fear that a revolutionary approach to planning will mean Great Britain being concreted over, they should sleep easy. At today’s high housing densities, nearly a billion homes would need to be built if the 23.5million hectares of Great Britain were really all to be fully covered in concrete. In other words: only if the majority of the population of China came to live in New Labour’s beloved choc-a-block, low-transport housing schemes would the British countryside really disappear.

But those of us who want a revolutionary approach to planning are not calling for that. We’re just calling for the government to butt out of the land business and let the people decide where to build places to live. We don’t want ‘mini reviews’ of Regional Spatial Strategies to be completed, in leisurely style, by 2011, as the Green Paper suggests. We want what even the Financial Times has termed ‘bold and difficult’ changes to planning, instead of a CLG approach which that newspaper has also described as ‘tinkering with the gearbox when the engine has broken down’ (11).

The question of infrastructure

Once land use is liberalised, houses may spring up in all sorts of places. As the Green Paper observes, new homes means a need for new schools, healthcare centres, roads, public transport, water, energy sources and public spaces. There’s no reason for housebuilders to continue, under section 106 of the Thatcher administration’s 1990 Town and Country Planning Act, to be taxed to fund all this. There’s also no reason that Planning Gain Supplement, a complicated alternative to section 106 and one first dreamt up in 2004, should take its place – indeed, the Green Paper characteristically promises not to introduce it before 2009. Instead, the government should spend some money on infrastructure to support housing. In the 2005/2006 tax year, the Exchequer collected nearly £5billion from Stamp Duty, 114 per cent more than in 2000/2001 (12). That is the size of its tax take on transactions in what are for most part housing antiques.

The government should spend that kind of money, and then some, on infrastructure. But that is not what the CLG has in mind. The only figures put on spending in the chapter on infrastructure are £4billion by the Department of Transport, and £20million by the Department of Health. The CLG even plans to work with the Environment Agency to ensure that growth is planned to ‘reduce demand for new infrastructure’.

The recent collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis, America, has reminded us all of how important infrastructure is. But that does not mean Labour wants to take it seriously. Instead of protecting us against floods, a function the capitalist state might legitimately discharge, the implicit rule now is: never build houses where floods might occur, given ‘the latest climate change predictions’.

With New Labour we can always expect the latest climate change predictions to be worse than the last ones. Yet the government, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is not interested in physically adapting the environment to deal with the climate change (13). Rather, the mitigation of carbon emissions arising ‘from the way we heat, light and run our homes’ is its priority. In other words, we must all arrange to use less gas-fired central heating and electricity.

When UK environment secretary Hilary Benn recently raised the money earmarked to deal with floods from a useless £600million to a paltry £800million (equivalent to the price, say, of a few hundred homes in Chelsea), he was talking about doing that in 2010/2011. Indeed, the £800million will only partly be spent on barriers against floods; some of it will be spent on that nebulous thing, flood ‘risk management’, too.

The Green Paper is not about spending money on infrastructure. It is about infrastructure reviews, monitoring, integrating, governance and management.

Our space and their space

The new homes that the government wants will be small and packed together in urban areas tighter than sardines in a tin. The struggle for sustainability (mentioned on every page of the Green Paper), like the campaign to root out carbon emissions (69 mentions), dictates nothing less. There can be no talk of exactly how much interior space each householder might have at his or her disposal: though there are a few references to ‘overcrowding’, the Green Paper gives the phrase square metres not a single mention.

It’s the same non-story, too, with the space around each home. Surplus brownfield land held by local authorities, we are told, might allow another 60,000 homes to be squeezed into 2,600 hectares. And despite the trend, throughout the West in the twentieth century, for larger and larger homes to be built in developments of lower and lower density (developments otherwise derided as ‘sprawl’), the Green Paper also boasts that Labour has raised the density of new housing from 25 dwellings per hectare in 1997 to 40 today. But apart from that, there is no mention of hectares – and not a whisper, either, of how close the newly built home of today is to that of its neighbours, or of the noise that attends such proximity.

These omissions rather defuse the Green Paper’s repeated commitment to housing quality (81 mentions). What the Green Paper means by quality is that more than a million children have been lifted out of cold, damp homes since 1997 – though England still has more than a million ‘non-decent’ homes (14). Quality means well-designed homes, well-designed places, and greener homes. Indeed design (more than 100 mentions) can do nearly anything, it seems. It can:

  1. improve quality of life, the environment, and ‘perceptions of cohesion and positive attitudes about physical spaces’;
  2. create safer and stronger communities;
  3. reduce our carbon footprint;
  4. meet the needs of an ageing population;
  5. give better access for wheelchair users;
  6. create more family-sized units with adequate access for baby buggies and outdoor play space;
  7. cut the risk of crime;
  8. speed the delivery of new homes – because local people are more welcoming of well-designed schemes and then recognise the positive benefits that new housing can bring to an area;
  9. get the most out of new technologies and approaches;
  10. promote more sustainable patterns of behaviour

The Brownites seem to have a messianic fervour for design (15); but in place of that, they could do with a more humanist approach to spatial issues. People need space for gardening, parking, having picnics and letting their kids play. Insisting that the density of new housing schemes be great enough to disallow people from spreading out – that kind of regulation must be overturned.

Symptoms and causes

It’s important to recognise that the problems often cited as causes of Britain’s housing crisis are in fact symptoms of the root cause, namely the state monopoly of land development rights. Chapter 11 of the Green Paper, which is about how to deal with skills shortages in construction, misses the point: there are 117,000 bricklayers in the UK (16), but – compared to the country’s love-in with the land – house-building in the UK is too weak, too volatile in its pattern of earnings to guarantee that workforce of 117,000 continuity of employment and thus the maintenance of their skills.

The problem is not that there are too many flats and small properties compared with family homes, leading to overcrowding. It is not that Buy to Let landlords need to be limited, especially because they often leave properties empty. The problem is not one of empty properties (24 mentions), or the fact that England has half a million privately owned homes that are vacant, half of them for longer than six months. Nor do we need the state to extend its powers by introducing Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs).

Buy to Let flats that are poky and homes that are unoccupied are symptoms, not causes. Both reflect the fundamental buoyancy of the British housing market, particularly in London and the South East of England. Given the state’s monopoly of land development rights, it makes perfect sense for anyone who can afford it to invest in any kind of land with planning permission – whether the land has a terrible home, an empty home, or nothing on it at all. Thus housebuilders have land banks not so much because they are greedy, nor because all the land they have is simply the inevitable product of the frictions of the free market. No: housebuilders have resorted to accruing brownfield land years ahead of its development because the state has narrowed even the modest wiggle-room they had before Tony Blair took power (17).

The state runs the show. New Labour, suggests the Green Paper, will ensure that housebuilders, developers and landowners ‘provide a uniform base disclosure within their accounts in a form that provides a consistent and comprehensive declaration of total residential land holdings’. The government, and most recently the Office of Fair Trading, likes to deflect attention away from the state’s role in housing, instead trying to direct the public’s gaze toward venal housebuilders and their land banks (18).

Conclusion

On previous occasions, I have pointed out that, contrary to popular myth, Green Belts are expanding in England and forests are expanding throughout the UK, and the UK’s proportion of protected land, according to the OECD, is about twice as high as the average in other countries (19). Yet in the contest between first-time buyers and the English countryside, the Green Paper gives the laurels to nature. It announces that the government is ‘committed to the principles of the Green Belt’. But what are the Green Belts, anyway? There are 14 of them, covering 12 per cent of England’s surface: the largest, covering about 0.5million of the Belt’s 1.5million hectares, is an annulus of open land surrounding London.

Conservative Party housing minister Duncan Sandys set up the Green Belts in 1955, to check the growth of large built-up areas, prevent neighbouring settlements from merging into one another, and preserve the special character of historic towns. In brief, the principles of the Green Belt are to keep the masses living inside or well away from the typical English city, not on its edges, where they might do mischief. That’s why the new Green Paper says there will be ‘no fundamental changes’ to the Belts.

What was good enough for the widely ridiculed Tory rightist ‘Sunken Glands’ more than 50 years ago is good enough for New Labour today, it seems. Because its priority is to preserve English nature from white working-class oiks, the government searches after scraps of land, believing that they can be assembled into a full-scale sausage.

In the contest between construction output and house design, the Green Paper likewise prefers the latter every time. Its conception of product quality in housing is mathematically blind to the need for plenty of space inside and outside a home. Yet Yvette Cooper herself has said that, in housing, quality must come before quantity. Launching the Green Paper on 23 July, she told parliament: ‘In the 1960s, quality was sacrificed in the name of speed. We must not make those mistakes again.’ (20)

Will we have truly inexpensive homes, by the million, available any time soon? For that to happen, the state’s monopoly over who builds where will have to change.

James Woudhuysen is Professor of Forecasting and Innovation, De Montfort University. His website is here. He would like to thank Ian Abley and James Heartfield for their contributions to this essay.

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen warned of the dangers of Brownfield Brutalism and urged friendly bombs to fall on Brown’s eco-towns. James Heartfield argued that we need to lift the controls on building, explained that Britain’s housing boom is a phantom one, and said that we should stop romanticising council housing. Austin Williams saw an exhibition at Tate Modern, which reduced cities to a statistical sprawl. Or read more at spiked issue Architecture and planning.

(1) Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable – Housing Green Paper

(2) To achieve affordable housing, we’ll fight selfish nimbyism, Yvette Cooper,Observer, 22 July 2007

(3) See Table 3, ‘Previously-developed land as a proportion of all developed land, by land type and Government Office Region: England 2005’, in Previously-developed land that may be available for development: England 2005, August 2006

(4) For the Economist, Yvette Cooper’s plans for housing were ‘less ambitious than they seem’. See Build more or else, The Economist, 26 July 2007

(5) UK house prices, BBC News, 2 August 2007

(6) See the executive summary of The Eddington Transport Study, Sir Rod Eddington, HM Treasury, December 2006

(7) See p. 7 of Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable – Housing Green Paper. The Green Paper’s figure for the current annual growth in English housing stock, namely 185,000 a year, is odd. The increase in stock in 2004 – 2005 recorded for England was 168,000; for Great Britain, 201,000. See CLG, Tables 104 and 102, here. The best treatments of the number of homes Britain needs are in Ian Abley’s, Blowhard Brown and the eco-towns of Little Britain, 13 July 2007, and in James Heartfield’s Let’s build: why we need five million new homes in the next 10 years, audacity, 2006.

(8) See for example Magic’s website here and here

(9) See Blowhard Brown and the eco-towns of Little Britain by Ian Abley, 13 July 2007

(10) If people fear that the designs that win competitions will be samey, they should listen to the London architect Alex Lifschutz. He writes: ‘Better to look at the pattern books of identical terraces that successfully created our cities in the nineteenth century and rethink them for the twenty-first century, than to pursue the architectural utopia where every building looks different but in its high cost and inflexibility turns out to be exactly the same.’ See ‘Rewind and Repeat’, Building Design, Alex Lifschutz, 4 April 2003, quoted in What if full aesthetic and technical approvals are given before any site or client is identified? by Ian Abley.

(11) Building houses on shaky foundations, Financial Times, 24 July 2007

(12) See Rising house prices mean more income from stamp duty, 5 March 2007

(13) On the IPCC’s disdain for adaptation, see Let’s fight back against the new Model Army by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, 12 July 2007

(14) Homes for the future: more affordable, more sustainable – Housing Green Paper (PDF 1719 Kb), Figure 2, p15

(15) For more on that fervour, see Shuffling towards Bethlehem, James Woudhuysen, Blueprint, August 2007

(16) See Association of Brickwork Contractors

(17) Before New Labour came into power, a housebuilder typically took out an option with farmers so that he could buy their greenfield land at an agreed price in the event that he secured planning permission. However, once state policy shifted decisively toward high density, brownfield development, housebuilders found options on urban land much more expensive than the old sort. That made them build up their own stocks of land, whose price they could rightly expect to appreciate very nicely over just a few years. Land banking is a symptom of the inability of the housebuilder to deal with farmers through options, because the state has decreed that low-density suburbia can no longer be his core business.

(18) The OFT’s initiative is described here

(19) See The dangers of Brownfield Brutalism, by James Woudhuysen, 20 September 2006 and Homes 2016 by Ian Abley

(20) Statement by Yvette Cooper MP, about housing supply

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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