Tuesday, 30 August 2011

How to create a housing crisis - remove the right to develop!

Amidst all the special pleading and NIMBY critiques of proposals to change the planning system – you know make it a little simpler so as to allow decisions on development to make some sense just occasionally – not many people have stopped to think.

Firstly, when I say planners are anti-business and anti-market I mean it. This doesn’t make them evil but it does reflect the fact that the planner’s job is to control development (these days, in a fit of correctness, it is termed “development management”). So, whatever those planners might say, their activity represents a cost to the developer – to business – that distorts the market. However much this ‘development management’ might be a good thing, its advocates cannot argue that they do not distort the market and add costs to development.

Secondly the idea of devolving planning responsibility to local communities is a good one. For years planning decisions have been made in the context of a room filled with seemingly endless policies, statements, guidance and precedence leaving the local councillors charged with the decision (subject to costly appeal of course) with little or no choice. Replacing this vast overload of regulation with 52 pages of a National Planning Policy Framework (ideally enshrined in statute and therefore not subject to the usual ministerial mission creep) is a good thing. As indeed is recognising that communities can and should be allowed a substantial input to the rules under which development decisions in their community are made.

But this devolution requires a balance – a protection against the inevitable NIMBY and BANANA objections. We have to state – right at the top of the page in big capital letters – that, ceteris paribus, the owner of a property has a right to develop that property. And to profit from that development if that is his intention. If we do not have this right, we grant to neighbours the power – given the tyranny of democracy – to stop any development.

The proposed “presumption” in favour of “sustainable” development does precisely this – it recognises that the planning system already presumes in favour of development (if the plan says a piece of land is housing land it will be developed as such however much neighbours campaign to stop the development) and adds a caveat of “sustainability” that may or may not actually mean something. There is little substantially different in this from the current over-complex system.

The challenge for local communities is to take the offer on the table – and local councils should support them in this – and develop plans that allow for housing development, that recognise the need for rented housing and that are determined by local need and demand rather than by the decisions of some distant bureaucrat who has never visited nor is likely to visit.

In Cullingworth, increasing the size of the village by around 10% would not be a problem – this is 100-150 houses and there are existing permissions for around 70 already. The remainder could come from developing sites within the current village boundary and permitting the conversion of redundant agricultural buildings to residential use. This would not impact on the ‘green belt’ nor would it need to be done in one fell swoop - it could be spread across a flexible ten-year plan period.

Scale this sort of locally-led approach to development up across the country – assume that current permissions will be developed and that historic designations for housing (however much we may not support them) will remain – and the one million or so houses we need can be delivered without the sort of high profile “they’re concreting over the countryside” campaigns we are familiar with through the pages of the newspapers.

It is this approach that could come from the localism proposals and the limiting of national direction over planning. But we cannot further nationalise property rights by removing the presumption in favour of development – that would be wrong and, just as bad, would make existing challenges meeting housing need, especially in the south east into a real crisis.


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