Where shall we find the land?

Introduction

The green paper is very thorough and sensible. However, there are inconsistencies. Here are examples of what the draftsman suggests and what we think:

 

People need better and larger houses

Surely a small house is better than none.

 

We must not disturb the Green Belt

aka Conservative voters - time to get tough.

 

We must not change our policy of turning the countryside into a museum

Its time to challenge local councillors directly.

 

Use brownfield land

Sorry, but there’s none left.

 

Build upwards

That works only in the cities.

 

Accept amazing design

But only when it is the same as what the Georgians and Victorians built.

 

Be realistic about demand

1. The introduction to the green paper points out that we need 250,000 more houses a year to keep up with population growth. However, the Government figures shamelessly duck the issue of future immigration. If we take the broad assumption that every two immigrants need one home, and that immigration will stick at 100,000 per year, we need 50,000 more homes. Of course new arrivals do not immediately move into new houses, but they add to the general population, so somewhere along the line, those extra houses are essential. I suggest 300,000 is a more realistic figure for the total requirement.

2. That is the Government’s estimate of what is required to satisfy today/s requirement. All measurements of housing need are based on numbers of people needing a roof over their heads today. But that fails to address the connected issue of unaffordable house prices. We cannot know the number of houses that would provide price-demand equilibrium. What we do know is that data on the multiple of house prices to earnings is horrific and getting worse. In half the country, the average cost of a house is between 7.2 and 14.3 times average earnings. We see news about refugees and our hearts go out to them - and so does our money. They are distant and non-threatening. But what about our younger friends and relatives right here. To live anywhere in the country is out of the question for them. That cannot be right.

3. We need to target not only providing homes, but also reducing house prices back to say, five times average earnings. That is still 60% higher than the manageable average for the last half of the 20thCentury. To make any impact, we need to plan for even more houses. I will push my estimate to 350,000 per year.

4. We are living longer. Every decade we live another year or more. Extended old age will not all be healthy. So we need a massive increase in accommodation with different levels of assistance - from none to care homes.

Just release small sites

5. We need to build a lot of houses. If we want fewer mega schemes, we shall have to activate many more schemes on small sites. The advantages of small sites are that they:

5.1. are more likely to be close to existing services and facilities;

5.2. can be developed faster, because small numbers can be absorbed faster by the market;

5.3 can be developed by small builders who do not need to fit “start on site” within a nation-wide plan;

5.4. are less likely to disrupt the architectural structure of a town or village;

5.5. are less likely to disrupt or overwhelm local facilities.

6. The recent green paper makes sensible noises about small sites. Surely there cannot be a village in England that would be harmed by five small sites of ten houses each. There are about 4,500 villages in England, so if we spread just 50 new houses on small sites around the edge of each village, we should barely notice them - but that would give us 225,000 homes at a stroke. However, many rural LPAs plan for almost no new homes in villages. Just to rub the message in, any developer interested in crossing this swamp will have to learn to live with the crocodiles.

7. The big downside of small sites is that they require proportionately far more up front cost than large sites. The green paper seeks many more sites of under one hectare. How many owners of the odd hectare want to put up £25,000 - £40,000 of risk money? The only way an owner can be sure of success is by obtaining informal prior approval of the planning officer. But the cost is no less, and the Committee may disagree with the planning officer and refuse the scheme. The risk is just too large for most people.

8. There is hope for small sites, as follows. When an LPA puts out a call for sites, many small ones always come forward. Owners of large sites usually use professional firms to handle their proposals; small land owners do not. So unless the LPA gives a certain approval, the small land owner will not spend the money to contest even a low level objection. But a slightly more level playing field might be enough to tilt the balance and produce more sites.

Other space issues,

9. Finally, on the question of density, the green paper, at paragraphs 1.51 to 1.55 makes wishy washy suggestions for maximising use of space. The problem is that for many years, successive governments have prescribed “bigger and better houses”. As a result, they cannot now take a “U” turn and admit that people who want a roof over their heads prefer even a small house to sharing their matrimonial home with mum and dad.

10. In practice, that means we can expect more woolly words in the next version of the NPPF and maybe some relaxing of statutory standards for some of the sillier national standards. Clever architecture can mean that what appears to be a rural detached house could contain 12 x one-bedroom flats and still fit its environment perfectly.

Shame not-for-profit land owners

11. The pressure of Para 49 of the NPPF has had some effect. “Volume builders” and large “strategic land” developers have stepped in very fast to tie up large land owners with option agreements and obtain outline consent for vast developments of soulless communities of similar houses. But before we criticise, let us get real on this one. It is the land owners who make the real money as they sell land for development. Most of those big land owners are endowed colleges, the Church of England, charities, county authorities and of course the local farmer who has just “got lucky”.

12. It is right that we respect and admire these national institutions, but surely we should expect a lead from all not-for-profit organisations in facilitating solving the housing problem. We do not need them to sell for an undervalue. What we need is for an LPA to be able to call on them to co-operate in the master planning process and for their “posh” advisers to be willing to talk to commercial developers about small schemes. Our experience is that even expecting a reply to a letter is a vain prospect.

13. Despite the reality, News media love to treat “big developers” as the dragons to be slain. This gets Government off the hook - and LPAs - and councillors. This is unfair. A house builder is a business charged with making a profit for its shareholders. It operates in the same way as Apple or Virgin or your local garage. If you want houses, someone has to build them. If government makes the rules, every business has to follow them. It is irresponsible and counter-productive to label a house builder as an evil desecrator of the countryside making obscene profits.

14. A developer must plan its programme to:

pay enough to a land owner to persuade her to sign to a deal;

maximise the use of its own resources;

physically move resources from one site to another;

build no more houses than it can sell;

make a profit so that it can pay a dividend - probably to yours and my pension funds.

The task and obligation of Government is not to stand with a whip showing how brave they are to hit demon developers, but to make sure you and I elect councillors who agree to plan properly.

Neighbourhood Planning

15. Still on the subject of finding land, comes the proposition of supporting neighbourhood planning. This is of course a brilliant idea - democracy in action. Sadly, there are two issues here which “dare not speak their name”. First, a question: how far can a group of part time people, probably meeting at the end of a long day, hope to provide a well balanced plan?

16. Now setting a medium term plan for development of an entire village is no mean task. Will many neighbourhood planning groups have the tenacity, skills and judgement to undertake this work successfully? Why should the parish council be up to it? Surely the first step must be for Government to insist that a vote be called to elect a committee who are positively volunteering to take on such an important task.

17. How will competing interests be covered democratically? Every local land owner will want to be able to cash in on the jackpot. Will the loudest voice win? How will issues be resolved without tearing the community apart? Maybe there is a requirement for some mediator from a distant place to settle differences. I suspect the Government has created its own Pandora’s box here.

Reports, requirements and box ticking

18. An LPA’s requirement for reports is often excessive. We need to overhaul the whole system. This is a good time to consider that because the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017 gives the minister new powers to tell LPAs what they can and cannot do. I have put my proposals in another article. I do hope you will comment.

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