8 June 2020

Development corporations won’t end the housing shortage


The Government is reportedly planning to set up ‘development corporations’ with the power to override local councils and move to a zonal planning system, so what you can build is set out by clear rules in advance. The Green Belt will, however, remain untouched.

I welcome any reform to get more good homes built. Development corporations – let’s call them DCs – can be powerful, and we should have more. At most, however, they are a partial solution.

On learning of the possible reform, one undergraduate wrote to me: “Didn’t New Labour try that?”. Another response came from a professor scarred by the failed reforms of prior decades, who described the idea as “fighting the last war with the weapons of the previous one”.

As we have recently and painfully seen, it is too easy for a Whitehall committee of the great and the good to miss the roots of a problem and reach the wrong conclusion on what is workable. To any would-be reformer, the first question is: how will your reform plausibly double or treble housing supply, sustainably and for the long term, in the real world of politics? Why will yours last when all the similar prior attempts failed?

If they cannot explain that, then they are, sadly, just tinkering at the edges. Because that is the sort of increase that the price signals are screaming at us to allow. We need more than a short-term fix to deliver 50,000 extra homes a year for a while. We need radical, long-term, systemic change.

What percentage of London are these development corporations going to cover? Will they have a power to override protected view corridors? That would give them some teeth. Will they have power to compulsorily purchase homes from homeowners (who vote, by the way). Will they cover conservation areas?

Will these development corporations be reserved for existing derelict sites in high-price places – most of which would be developed anyway? We have had ‘brownfield first’ policies before. Without radical change, they don’t work.

If the DCs cover areas with existing homes, will they create better places than at present? What examples can you give of government achieving that, and how will you improve on them?

Will they have the power to build new transport to poorly linked areas? If so, where will you put the stations at the end with the high-wage jobs? If that’s the plan, why will HS2 terminate at Euston when it could press on to regenerate another area beyond? Tunnelling is not the expensive part of a railway through London. And if you exclude green belt you have ruled out most of the low-hanging fruit for development.

If they do cover enough high-price areas to make a true dent in the housing shortage, will you be happy about the fall in house prices that results? Will your voters? Or will they form an unholy alliance with the diehards resisting change?

On the plus side, DCs could put some of the wasted potential of existing infrastructure to use. The tiny number of homes to be delivered through Crossrail is a national scandal. You can use DCs to ram through change – but at Euston, for example, the problem is offshoots of national government squabbling among themselves, not opposition from Camden Council.

It is great that the government has a mindset for radical change. At least one of its planning reforms must be powerful and durable, or they will join their countless brethren in the dustbin of planning history.

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John Myers is co-founder of London YIMBY, a grassroots campaign to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.