30 September 2022

Two modest proposals to get Britain building

By Laveen Ladharam

Edmund Burke once said that society is a partnership ‘not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’.

If Burke’s maxim was applied to urban development, Britain’s planning system should not only be a partnership between those living somewhere; but also between those who have previously lived there, presently live there and wish to live there in the future.

The last group is currently locked out of the planning process. This is important since prospective residents (especially prospective first time buyers) tend to be young, pay sky-high rents and are unlikely to already own a home.

The planning process at the moment is long-winded, bureaucratic and seems almost designed to stifle building.

To get houses built, developers must apply for permission from the relevant council’s local planning authority (LPA). The LPA then has to consider a proposed development in the context of its Local Plan as well as the Neighbourhood Plan of the parish council area where the development will take place. The Local Plan and Neighbourhood Plan have to fit within the National Planning Policy Framework, which is there to ensure the country builds homes.

If those criteria weren’t enough, the LPA must also stage a consultation of at least 21 days, consulting statutory and non-statutory consultees. Once that consultation period ends, the LPA’s planning committee has up to 13 weeks to decide whether to allow development to proceed. If the development is rejected, or granted with various unacceptable conditions, the developer can appeal to the Planning Inspectorate.

Three problems

On the face of it, this long-winded process does at least seem vaguely ‘democratic’, with various checks and balances. However, there are three huge problems with the current approach.

First, many of those consultees have a vested interest in preventing house building. As this list shows, statutory consultees include parties like Natural England or the Forestry Commission, all of whom are in the business of slowing down or completely stopping development. There is, however, no requirement for an LPA to consult prospective residents who want to live in the area – these are the (mostly young) people who are completely left out of the debate about ‘local democracy’ and planning.

The second problem is that decisions about big and controversial developments are decided by planning committees. Those committees are comprised of councillors who, like the consultees, often have a vested interest in rejecting development. That’s unsurprising, given that the residents they represent often fear that more homes means more pressure on local schools, GP surgeries and transport infrastructure.

It’s not just councillors though, local MPs of all stripes love to hang their hat on blocking development in their area. Here’s Labour’s Shadow Housing Minister, for instance, leading the charge against a new block of flats in his own constituency – a part of the country crying out for more homes. Or how about two Tory MPs celebrating when they manage to stop new housing at a disused urban gasworks – exactly the sort of place we ought to be building as much as possible.

And remember that our byzantine planning system doesn’t just stop home being built, it also affects important infrastructure such as reservoirs and solar farms.

The third problem is the expense to developers of complying with such a lengthy, complex planning process. That has resulted in a cartelisation of the industry, where only the big players can afford the mountain of red tape needed to push through development. A simpler process would make it much easier for smaller, independent housebuilders to play their part in the market.

Two solutions

So what is the answer?

Short of radically overhauling the planning system, there are two very conservative things the Government can do.

First, give a voice to those prospective residents I mentioned earlier. The only people who currently speak for prospective residents are developers and, arguably, the Government through the National Planning Policy Framework. Whilst their interests do overlap with prospective residents they only overlap in terms of raw housing numbers.

A new body (an Office for Home Ownership, perhaps) that gives a voice to prospective residents could put pressure on council to build more. Of course there would need to be a process for those prospective residents to say they want to buy in a particular area, to give planners a sense of demand.  There would be other potential benefits too. For instance, an Office for Home Ownership could be tasked with curbing the worst excesses of development – poor build quality, flood risks, abuses of leasehold and so on. In doing so the Government can marry a much more liberal, pro-building system with a sense of accountability and control that homeowners and existing residents expect.

But bringing in a new quango won’t be sufficient: the second part of the solution is giving councils decent incentives to build.

While much of the current debate surrounds what Liz Truss called the ‘Stalinist’ housing targets imposed from Whitehall, it would be far better to make structural changes to the planning process to incentive planning authorities to allow more development. As a recent Economist piece noted, those incentives are currently misaligned, because councils are expected to take on new residents without a corresponding funding stream for the services they will use.

If the Government can take steps to simplify the planning process so that it is less costly to obtain planning permission, some of those savings could go back to the councils themselves. Short of radically decentralising tax-raising and public spending, there would also need to be a way for Whitehall funding of services like health and education to track those new residents. On a local level, more flexibility on council tax, so that local authorities can raise more money from their new residents, would also mean more money to for services such as refuse collection.

Let’s be under no illusions here. On their own these proposals won’t fix the housing crisis. Only a really radical overhaul of the planning system that does away with the discretionary element is going to truly grab the nettle. In the absence of that reform, however, these ideas can go some way to building the homes we so desperately need.

A version of this piece first appeared on Laveen Ladharam’s Substack.

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Laveen Ladharam writes about history, politics, finance and law.

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