Monday, 25 November 2019

Why do we indulge suburban NIMBYs? A rant about housing policy.

The precious green belt that we must preserve at all cost
I was thinking about doing a careful analysis of the different political parties' proposals on housing. After all, it's one of the biggest things out there and, as Jimmy McMillan said, the rent's too damned high. Not only the rent but the price of housing and the price of land.

Anyway I'm not going to bother with the careful analysis because every party's housing policy is stupid. It's fair to say that, if you want a forced choice, the Conservative's ideas are the least stupid and Labour's are utterly deranged. Out there we've got rent controls, assorted unspecified reforms to tenancy laws, 'tenants unions' (whatever they are when they're at home), commitments to build oodles of housing without making any changes to the supply of land, subsidies for mortgages and a rate fixed by the government for those mortgages which, when you think about it, is just rent control for rich people.

Everyone - other than planners and planning academics - knows full well that most of the problem with high rents and high prices goes away when you stop limiting the supply of land on which people can build houses. But those planners and planning academics invest their time telling us that 'oh no, it's not like that at all, planning is vital' - mostly by denying the basic economic premise of a relationship between price and supply.

I had an brief interchange on Twitter with a chap from a housing association about Labour's plans for zillions of new council houses. The chap (his name was Murtha) thought this an absolutely splendid idea because of inequality and vulnerable people and "evil tories". I asked a couple of questions about how it would work given Labour absolutely insist that they can build 150,000 new council and social homes every year without increasing the supply of land on which houses can be built. Just like the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats they believe in this mystic and wonderful thing called "brownfield sites" on which all the houses can go meaning that nice middle class people on the margins of the big cities (who might be tempted to vote Labour to stop Brexit or something) won't have to have smelly council estate sorts on their doorstep lowering the tone of the area.

I lose count of the number of times I see councillors who not so long ago were voting for local plans that called for thousands of new homes popping up in the papers alongside local NIMBYs waving banners opposing a few new houses in those councillors' wards. Earlier this year lots of liberal democrats, independents and groups with names like "Badford And District Residents against Overdevelopment" found themselves running district councils previously Tory-controlled having spent the campaign saying they'd stop development. These new leaderships' are finding that, despite promising the NIMBY voters there'd be no development, they are going to have to agree local plans they said were headed for the bin.

More than any other area of policy, housing is dominated by this sort of abject stupidity. It's not that we don't need new social housing (even council housing) but that, if you say that you'll do this without increasing the supply of land, your policy will result in two things - more of the sort of high rise council flats that causes so many problems in the 1970s (and are being demolished because nobody wants to live in them) and more expensive private housing because you've taken up all the land building council houses. And, just to be even handed, the same goes if you create artificially cheap mortgages with subsidised deposits - without new land supply this just increases house prices.

Meanwhile local councils - or rather their national body, the LGA - are telling everyone that it isn't the fault of the planning system that no houses are getting built but the wicked developers who get planning permissions and don't build. Nobody points out to those councils that it doesn't work to grant planning permissions for speculative developments in the wrong location (where the landowner vainly believes doing so will get him more value) while actively blocking developments by actual housebuilders in places where people actually want to live.

Just today a planning academic (this makes me cry, really it does) said this after I'd mentioned that we had more housebuilding when we didn't have a planning system:
We had mass suburbanisation and huge loss of countryside. Planning system if not continually interfered with by govt would have social justice at its heart. That is why it came into being in the first place.
Seriously - mass suburbanisation and huge loss of countryside? Here's the reality:
The urban landscape accounts for 10.6% of England, 1.9% of Scotland, 3.6% of Northern Ireland and 4.1% of Wales.

Put another way, that means almost 93% of the UK is not urban. But even that isn't the end of the story because urban is not the same as built on.

In urban England, for example, the researchers found that just over half the land (54%) in our towns and cities is greenspace - parks, allotments, sports pitches and so on.

Furthermore, domestic gardens account for another 18% of urban land use; rivers, canals, lakes and reservoirs an additional 6.6%.

Their conclusion?

In England, "78.6% of urban areas is designated as natural rather than built". Since urban only covers a tenth of the country, this means that the proportion of England's landscape which is built on is…2.27%.
Yet a huge amount of political capital is invested in stopping that 2.27% of England becoming 3%. This is the stark reality of housing and planning policies, urged on by decades of anti-suburbia snark. Politicians, local and national, are terrified by a tiny minority of suburban NIMBYs who think its more important to preserve golf courses, redundant airfields, derelict greenhouses, former race tracks and tumbledown industrial sites than to have homes for the next generation in places where that generation want to live and can afford.

Right now, in different ways, all our political parties are proposing to solve the nation's housing problems through the use of public subsidy of one sort of another just because they're frightened of these NIMBYs. Billions in taxpayers cash splurged on housing simply because politicians haven't got the guts to tell people that, if they want more affordable housing, the way to get it is to reform the planning system, end the absolutism of green belt and dump the idea of detailed local plans. And then let the private sector build new suburbs.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There are two principal reasons why we 'indulge suburban NIMBYs' - firstly, they have been encouraged to consider the house they own as an investment, rather than just a place to live. Secondly, they vote.

Without changing at least one of those situations, the problem will not go away.