Politics trumps planning

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Two by-elections, two widely predicted Conservative victories that did not quite turn out that way.

Labour holding a seat and the Lib Dems winning one against a government that has been in power for 11 years would never have been seen as surprise results in previous parliaments but they could signal politics beginning to return to normal after Brexit, the 2019 election and the pandemic.

If Batley and Spen shows that the Tories can no longer be confident in Labour seats in the North, then Chesham and Amersham shows a worrying vulnerability to the Lib Dems in the South.

And the upshot is a depressing one for anyone who believes in the case for new homes. Trouble was always likely when planning reform met politics, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so quickly.

Planning is, of course, always contentious – even in a Batley and Spen by-election dominated by other issues it still featured in the letters pages of the local press.

But it was front and centre in Chesham and Amersham. While HS2 was also seen as a factor, the victorious candidate made heavy play of planning and housebuilding in her leaflets, quoting extensively from Tory critics of the plans who say they will mean ‘the wrong homes being built in the wrong places’.

This was deeply cynical of the Lib Dems, who support both the new high-speed train line and 300,000 new homes a year at a national level but said the opposite locally.

However, they were not the only ones. The losing Conservative candidate proposed turning much of the constituency into a national park during the campaign. This surely foreshadows likely tactics by local Tories in getting as much of their land as possible designated as ‘protect’ against new homes under the new system proposed in the Planning Bill.

Planning reform is opposed by two recent Conservative leaders (Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith) and a third (William Hague) has warned that it could become Boris Johnson’s poll tax.

At a national level, the party leadership has made the right noises about plans to ‘build beautiful’ as a route to winning local consent and the ‘moral duty’ to build more homes. However, even as it proclaims the right of young people to home ownership, it is ignoring the other occupant of the room, the one with big ears and a trunk.

Sensing an opportunity to put the government on the spot, Labour called an opposition day debate last month condemning plans in the white paper to deny communities a say over individual planning applications.

That’s legitimate enough in itself, although the votes of two Tory rebels were almost as miserable a haul for the party as its 622 in Chesham and Amersham.

What was depressing was the way it framed the message on social media in terms of green spaces and an image of rural England:

The debate itself was just as depressing, since there is little evidence that housebuilding alone will make housing more affordable or home ownership more accessible

Some MPs did make points about wider strategy including funding for affordable housing, demand for second homes and holiday lets and reform of the land and housebuilding markets.

But housing minister Chris Pincher managed to claim that the planning proposals would increase build-out rates by boosting small builders while ignoring the Letwin review’s conclusions that developers for sale will only build as fast as they can sell and that diversity of tenure is crucial.

As to the planning reforms themselves, I don’t know whether they will work in their own terms or not and I’d challenge anyone who says that they do, especially when they blame all housing’s ills on the ‘socialist’ planning system.

Unreliable data makes it difficult to say with any certainty what’s happening in the market.

This applies to the accuracy of the household projections at one end of the equation and the number of homes we are actually building at the other.

But it’s perhaps seen most clearly in the statistic that many of the opponents of planning reform use to justify their arguments: the 1.1 million homes that supposedly have planning permission but are not being built out.

It’s a dramatic number but it raises all sorts of questions about double counting, over-counting, under-counting and time lags and it ignores the issue of how much of a development pipeline housebuilders need before it can be counted as land banking.

As Neal Hudson of BuiltPlace argues, the statistic is ‘simplistic and it doesn’t accurately reflect the realities of planning and housebuilding’.

Finally, so much has changed in the last few years in terms of Brexit and the pandemic that I don’t think we can say with any certainty how much demand for housing there will be or where it will be.

There might be more demand for homes outside of traditional commuter belts as it becomes the norm to work largely from home and there might be a rash of empty offices and shops in town centres that could be redeveloped as affordable housing.

Or those could prove to be temporary phenomena as we return to town centres and offices in droves – we simply don’t know.

Two things we do now are, first, that any new approach to planning needs to address our nationally binding targets to reduce carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 and reach net zero by 2050.

Second, we need more social homes to rent – 90,000 a year, according to the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee.

Planning reform seems to do nothing to address either of these points. On the second, it could well do the opposite as funding for affordable homes will be reduced by reserving part of Section 106 for First Homes and making the rest part of a new Infrastructure Levy.

Even if it survives the Tory rebellion, planning reform on its own will not fix housing delivery let alone improve the wider housing system.

But that is a big if after Chesham and Amersham and botched reform reframed to appease opponents of housebuilding in areas where unaffordable house prices signal acute need will only make things worse.  


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