Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Lies, damned lies and housing numbers


I've spent today at the Examination in Public (EIP) of Bradford's Local Plan Core Strategy. It was a day of myth-making as we discussed how many new houses Bradford will need over the period from 2013 to 2030. I say myth-making because we saw the legal and professional teams assembled by the owners of possible housing land in Ilkley and Wharfedale (the least affordable and most desirable bit of the Bradford district) weeping well-remunerated crocodile tears over such matters as overcrowding, homelessness, the single room supplement and the vital need for affordable housing.

I also watched as the Council's planners patronised the hell out of local campaign groups and residents while quivering as a smug QC was allowed to interrupt and talk over in a manner not afforded to us mere mortals. It was a reminder that the planning system - the thing that the Town & Country Planning Association wants to "save" - is excluding and exclusive. And the people it excludes are the representatives - whether councillors or action groups - of local residents. Unless those groups are able to raise the cash to employ that smug QC themselves.

We're repeatedly told by planners and apologists for planners that we should engage with the system early before the important decisions about policies, strategies and allocations are made. So when - as we did today - those local representatives turn up, it is very clear that the priority and preference is for input from 'experts'. As if people like me speaking on behalf of twenty Conservative councillors representing a fifth of Bradford's population are of less consequence that a lawyer paid by a solitary landowner in Burley. Yet that is the truth of it - that one lawyer will have a more profound effect on the policies, strategies and land allocations of Bradford's Local Plan than all the arguments and representations of councillors and residents.

And the saddest thing is that the discussion today about housing numbers was an exercise with little grounding in reality. The 'objective assessment of housing need' and 'housing requirements' are essentially a board game played between council planners and developers with the Planning Inspector as a sort of scorekeeper. There's lots of talk about 'ambition'. 'economic development', 'new job creation' and 'affordable housing' - each with its own little evidence base. An evidence base that is only objective if you accept the premise that the game described.

So, for example, the approach arrives (using essentially a straight line demographic projection adjusted for some guesses about migration) at an 'objective assessment' of housing need. But this isn't the end of the matter because, in the world of setting housing numbers, there's an assumption that jobs growth is matched by growth in housing need. So that objective assessment of need must be adjusted upwards to reflect economic growth. And to arrive at this estimate the number in the objective assessment is plugged into an econometric model (in Bradford's case a thing called the Yorkshire and The Humber Regional Econometric Model or REM for short) that generates, in a roundabout sort of way, a new and bigger number.

It's important to note here that whether the REM is any good is not the issue. What matters is that all the various local planning authorities (LPAs) are using the same model. And I'll note here an interesting paradox of this uprating of housing numbers because of economic growth. The assumption here is that growth in jobs follows from economic growth and that this growth in jobs outstrips the natural growth in population (remember we've picked that up in our objective assessment based on Office of National Statistics data on population trends). Ergo we need more houses.

The paradox is that this growth requires positive net in-migration to the LPA area. For every single LPA using the model. We don't at any point ask where the place is that these people are moving from. If economic growth results in more housing demand in Bradford there must be a place elsewhere that has less housing demand. The problem is that the board game of housing numbers doesn't allow for such a conclusion (or the distinct possibility that Bradford, with its current net out-migration is, in fact, that place where housing need is falling rather than rising - at least in aggregate).

The game of upward adjustment (there is not scope for downward adjustment) isn't over. This is where the crocodile tears of planning consultants and lawyers kick in as they start arguing that high rates of overcrowding, homelessness and even the 'single room supplement' need to be considered as they all indicate housing pressures. There's a great show - a veritable care-a-thon - of discussing the importance of affordable housing. This is part of the game and not in any way reflecting of the caring nature of those lawyers and planning consultants or their housebuilder clients. Come the day when they submit plans for housing those same folk will turn up to argue why they can't build affordable homes, contribute to schools or improve road safety. But at the moment, before the Inspector, these 'market indicators' are used to try a get a 'uplift' to that housing number.

After five and a bit hours of this discussion it is hard to see any merit at all in our planning system. Indeed this is made worse by the process allowing the rest of us a litte bit of time to play the game. Not that anyone will take much notice of what we say but we get a little go - a bit like those games of kiddie five-a-side at half time in the big match. To illustrate this we can observe that today the inspector took and hour and a half questioning the Council, six developer representatives a further hour and a half and ten others (that's us residents, councillors and so on) took 40 minutes. The Council then responded to developer points for a hour leaving just fifteen minutes to address the concerns of residents before returning again to an exchange with the lawyers and planning consultants acting for developers.

At the end of all this I don't expect that there will be much change from the Council's housing number (42,100 if you're interested). It is a complete fiction bearing only the vaguest relationship to the real world. One speaker today kindly quoted a prediction I made when the Local Plan Core Strategy was debated at full council - that, regardless of the number we plump for, the chances are that we'll build somewhere around 25,000 houses in the sixteen-year plan period. And that the higher the number we go for the more of those houses will be built on green field and green belt sites. The nature of housing markets and the planning system as it operates on a day-to-day basis more or less guarantee this under-delivery.

Watching today's discussions, I was again struck by the idiocy of so-called 'strategic planning'.  Instead of making actual decisions about real housing need what we are doing is making essentially arbitrary decisions determined by economic and demographic models rather than being grounded in reality. Worse the government has decided that we're not allowed to be honest about our economic prospects - there is something delightfully Stakhanovite about the whole modelling approach - meaning that the final numbers have only the most tenuous connection with the actual real, live housing market.

In the end the loser in all this will be Bradford. We will have an inner city that continues to decline and where only vast lumps of public subsidy will allow the developer the margin to build. All so those landbanks in Wharfedale can be in the plan.

As my friend and full time housing guru Huw Jones put it - there are lies, damned lies and housing numbers.


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