Housing Crisis in the UK
When is Enough Enough?
I met a lady from Hammersmith at the Ecobuild show a couple of weeks ago. In her wealthy part of town, she said, people come home at the end of the year with massive bonuses, and go out and buy themselves a country residence, or another town house. She said most people she knew had at least two homes.
There is an almost universally accepted mantra in Britain that ‘more homes are needed’ to solve our housing crisis. This cry, kept broiling and bubbling by development consultants does not stand up to scrutiny. Ian Mulheirn says ‘there appear to be 5.2% more places to live than there are households that want to live in them.’ The problem is one of poor distribution.
Homes do not comply with normal market mechanisms, because the market is almost infinite, with Saudi sheiks buying up central Mayfair for their palaces, and Chinese oligarchs building ‘money boxes’ in London, massive glass tower blocks of flats, some not even designed to be lived in.
Broken Planning System
Meanwhile, hundreds of pages of planning precedence and law have been ripped up and replaced with a woolly document, the National Planning Policy Framework, NPPF.
The planning system for new homes in Britain has broken down.
Speciously, the NPPF pretends that it is returning power over local decisions on housing to the people. Actually, it is creating a huge administrative burden on populations, and taking away any control of where homes go.
Firstly, counties are obliged to accept ridiculous growth figures, in the case of Oxfordshire, of 100,000 homes, a 40% increase in the existing built environment and equivalent to two new Oxford cities. This, in a place where only 3% of homes are over-crowded, 4% are empty, and 73% are under-occupied.
Secondly, each village, town, or ‘neighbourhood’ is forced to undergo a costly, frustrating, time-consuming and bizarre process of creating a neighbourhood plan. Ordinary citizens have to learn and re-invent a planning system, work with expensive consultants that cost in the region of £60,000 per plan, accept housing numbers allocated to them that they do not want, and theoretically decide where they go. This process normally takes at least 2 and sometimes up to 6 years.
A Cruel Farce
The sinister part of the planning framework is that developers override local desires, laughing all the way to the bank. In Oxfordshire, 100,000 homes are to be built by the 2031. Houses have never been built that fast, and they cannot be built that fast.
Each year, developers can go to the local council and say “you have failed to produce homes fast enough” even though it is the developers that are in control of the speed of building. If the council is failing to meet its targets, as it inevitably does, the developer has a right to develop any piece of land, outside of any plan, ‘sustainably’, which seems to mean whatever the developer wants it to mean.
An example is that there must be jobs for new residents. Developers successfully argue that this economic sustainability is met by jobs created in the building of the homes. Absurd!
The result, in Oxfordshire, is that homes go where they should not. Green fields are developed first, brownfield sites are left untouched. Local people work furiously to oppose the developers. At planning appeals, a beleaguered council worker will have to face up to the multi-million pound might of the developer, facing several aggressive sneering Silks (Queen’s Counsels, our top lawyers, paid top-whack).
The result so far? Poor quality homes plopped down or planned with inadequate public goods: schools, transport, social care, sewerage. And our landscape and ecology eroded and dismembered, piece by piece.
Reclaim the Planning System
Unfortunately, increasing housing supply has not yet, and logically will not reduce the price of homes. For that, we would need to restrict the market. For my money, that would mean that you could buy a home only if you needed one, because you lived in the area.
Right now, the urgent thing would be to reclaim the planning system. Developers should never be allowed to override local plans. There should be no right of appeal to them to use their money-might to undermine local democracy.
I would exhort all you UK residents to write to your MP to ask for such a change in planning law.