I have been glued to the BBC documentary, ‘The Planners‘ over the past eight weeks. As a planner myself, I’ve found the programme to be well balanced, and reflective of the life in planning I’ve experienced. Fiona Edwards is something of a poster-girl for me right now.
During Episode 6, a group of residents from a relatively new housing estate in Tarporley, Cheshire were seeking to object to a proposal for new housing on greenfield land adjacent to their houses. The full policy background and circumstances can, of course, only be skimmed over during the programme, but it seemed as though the housing proposal was based on fairly strong grounds and stood a good chance of being approved. The residents argued that, for the sake of the wider village and the people living in it, the housing should not go ahead. They assumed that the development would only cause problems and would be badly delivered. They thought that the planners hadn’t seen ‘the bigger picture’ of the effects that such development would have on their lives (and their view of cows in the field).
The residents didn’t consider themselves nimbies but, like no-one ever confesses to having poor taste or bad manners, they never do. My bet is that they wouldn’t have been quite so engaged had the housing been proposed on the other side of the village. Their reasoning could also be challenged. They themselves live in new housing that would have once been green fields, in a development which some would say is rather poorly designed (low density, mock Tudor, anyone?). Theirs is also ‘the smaller picture’, often focused on their particular problems. The planners are looking at the big picture – the effect on the land, the alternatives available, the economy, the need for housing and the need to support the village in its growth. It could be argued that building houses will help the village and it’s residents as much as not building them, in providing trade for the local shops and services, housing for those who need it locally (kids leaving home, couples splitting up etc) and local jobs.
This small example demonstrates the difficulty we have in the country at the moment. On the one hand we have a recognition of issues – the need for jobs to be created, houses to be built, money to be spent – but on the other, the resistance to change and the protection of lives built up through the good times. Any initiative to set the balance right again, or to let those who do not have accumulated wealth, will be resisted because it challenges the comfy life those have established for themselves. So, no houses here because we like looking over the fields, but they’re fine over there on that contaminated, derelict site no-one wants to build on, thanks very much.
To my very simple way of thinking, building lots of houses is a significant part of resolving many of our troubles, but that this is the solution demonstrates just how long-standing and embedded our problems are. Two significant contributory factors to the lack of available housing now – the right-to-buy and a Council’s ability to build it’s own housing – date back to the early Thatcher years. However, we are where we are, and enabling a house building bonanza will have a number of positive effects. It will:
- create jobs in construction (not to mention the indirect benefits to professions such as planning and architecture);
- provide a greater choice, selection and number of houses on the market, bringing prices down and enabling more people to afford mortgages and rent;
- by reducing the amount of money needed for rents and mortgages, allow more money to be freed up to spend on other things;
- in enabling reduced prices, make housing at the bottom more affordable, meaning we reduce the problems Council’s face in housing those who are or become homeless;
- by building more housing generally, deliver more ‘affordable’ housing for those at the very bottom (i.e. subsidised housing), even if the proportion delivered is the same.
The Chancellors budget, delivered yesterday, ignores this. Instead of addressing the hope value in land and houses, the high rents, the disproportionate cost of housing against most peoples wages, the stagnant construction industry and the contradiction of localism against the country’s strategic needs, he’s chosen (at least as part of his Budget) to underwrite the cost of mortgages in an inflated market using taxpayers money. And he’s not even clear on how this will work, not yet clarifying whether this relates to higher earners and second homes. Rather than seek to address our decades of overspending and under delivery on housing, he’d rather protect material wealth, built on credit and borrowing, by underpinning the high cost of housing with taxpayers money.
What we really need is more houses, and fast. We need landowners to accept that land is worth less than they think; we need the means to act when landowners refuse to move on planning consents for housing (often increasing the value of their asset overnight); we need to accept that housebuilders need to make a profit; we need a faster way of dealing with planning applications, particularly where concerns are not planning based and we need an effective way of ensuring that housing developments deliver quality and not just quantity – that sustainability is built into our considerations.
Sadly, if we keep protecting our ill-gotten gains during the boom years, and we don’t find a way to actually pay for them, this recession is going to be with us a very long time.