Why the Government's planning reforms are ill-thought-out - and how to tackle the housing 'crisis'
Rosie Pearson is a planning campaigner based in north Essex where she cut her teeth in a campaign against the biggest new settlement proposed anywhere in England. The new town – known as ‘West Tey’, with up to 28,000 homes – was hugely unpopular with local people. The campaign group had to raise over £100,000 to fight four local authorities. When a planning inspector agreed that the proposals were unsuitable and rejected them, Rosie was free to co-found a national campaign group called the Community Planning Alliance.
“Ire in the Shires”, said the Sunday Times. “Planning reforms could be Boris Johnson’s poll tax”, said William Hague. “Tories warned Boris Johnson he must 'listen' to fury about planning reforms”, said the Daily Mail.
So what is everyone so het up about?
As co-founder of a grassroots campaign map launched in March, and a new national campaign group, I can testify that emotions are running high about the planning system. Within weeks of launch the map had self-populated with over 450 campaign groups, from Cornwall, to Scotland, to Kent. The number rises daily.
Each of those groups represents communities coming together to protect valued green space from an environmental threat. In the vast majority of cases, that threat is government’s build, build, build agenda. Most of those groups face a council that does not listen and many are having to raise funds to fight deep-pocketed developers and often their own council, as was our case in north Essex.
‘Build, build, build’
Here’s how the ‘build, build, build’ narrative goes: There is a housing crisis. To solve this ‘crisis’ we must BUILD MORE HOMES – government’s target is 300,000 new homes a year. That will, according to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, “help young people and those on low incomes to enjoy the dream of home ownership”. We have all heard this so many times that it has become a national belief. Those who resist are branded home-owning not-in-my-backyarders (nimbys) who are preventing young people from enjoying that dream.
It was the shock Liberal Democrats win in the Amersham & Chesham by-election which triggered the most recent furore, but unrest has been brewing since last summer, when the government unveiled reforms to the planning system in ‘Planning for the Future’. The Queen’s Speech this spring hinted that those reforms would be set out in a Planning Bill in the near future. In brief, the government wants to make ‘beauty’ a central plank of the system, in an attempt to placate nimbys. It plans to do this through the use of design codes, created with local input, and a trial with fourteen councils was launched in May. While there is sense to this concept, it is simply a sticking plaster to cover up the fact that housing policy is broken to the core.
Government also wants local authorities to ‘zone’ land to develop, renew (although that might be dropped) and protect. Once land is in a growth zone, there will be no requirement for a planning application.
Yes, you heard that right. Vast swathes of land will be allocated for growth to meet the 300,000 home a year target and once that’s done you will have no further say in what’s built. Understandably, that has got peoples’ goat.
The problem with the government’s housing target
What if I told you that behind the government’s narrative something completely different is going on in reality? That the government is using out-of-date and over-inflated figures to set the housing target? And that its housing policies are inflationary, not price reducing?
Taking the first of these assertions, let’s look at the housing target. Government insists that the 2014 Office for National Statistics projections are used. That allows it, with a bit of tinkering and the occasional attempt at a mutant algorithm, to justify the 300,000 target.
In fact, population growth is slowing. Brexit and the pandemic have triggered recent dramatic population changes but even before that the ONS said, “The population grew at the slowest rate for 15 years between mid-2018 and mid-2019”. ONS 2018 statistics showed that there will be three million fewer people by 2039 than the 2014 projections forecast.
More recent analysis shows that in fact only 160,000 households a year are forming, nearly half what the national target is.
In addition, experts all over the country, including Professor David Gregg and Merle Gering have been picking apart the ONS statistics and conclude that they have over-stated student populations and birth rates in around 50 towns. Professor Gregg’s work shows that the argument that there are suppressed, or concealed households is also shaky. Their work has forced a review of the ONS by the Office for Statistics Regulation, which found room for improvement and made recommendations. An ONS response is expected in July.
Even with high targets, house prices are not dropping (quite the opposite) and affordable housing is not being delivered. Nationally, 243,000 homes were built last year but under 10% of those were ‘affordable’ (mostly at 20% discount from market prices) and only 6,500 social houses. Inflationary policies such as Help to Buy and 95% mortgages just push house prices ever higher and are of great benefit to developers. Note too, that developers will only ever build as many houses as the market can absorb. If prices do begin to drop, they will restrict output.
There’s no time here to talk about the one million empty homes and second homes, nor the one million unbuilt planning permissions. However, the nub of the matter is that government policy is encouraging unaffordable houses that we do not need and which destroy England’s green and pleasant land. One study found out that between 1990 and 2015 land the size of Cornwall was lost to urbanisation.
What’s the solution?
It’s a complex topic but three things would make an immediate difference.
For starters, the national housing target from which so much destruction comes must be reviewed. It is not just me saying that. A report by a parliamentary committee concluded just that last week. Secondly, government should look at housing need, not demand, and then housing policy should address that need, and provide genuinely affordable houses. I am a trustee of an almshouse charity and you don’t get a better model: homes for local people in genuine need, weekly charges no higher than the local housing allowance and homes that stay with charities in perpetuity because there’s no right to buy.
Government also needs to heed the clamour of many, including the housing charity Shelter, TV presenter George Clarke and the Church, and should roll up its sleeves and build, build, build social housing. That would reduce the national housing waiting list, which sits stubbornly well above one million because nothing is being built for those people, and would bring wider economic benefits due to better health, better education and higher employment.
And finally, communities should have control over what is built and where. As a minimum there should be an obligatory referendum before a local plan is submitted to an inspector, and government should not implement its proposals to cut out planning applications and the opportunity to comment on a proposal.
There is ‘Ire in the Shires’, for sure, but also frowns in the towns – green spaces are threatened in urban areas too and many communities are losing precious park land and much-loved urban trees. Amersham certainly looks like the tip of a very large iceberg.