Don’t block homes because of congestion concerns

Our response to the RTPI

We don’t think it makes any sense to keep people jammed in tiny, obscenely expensive flats because of concerns about traffic. There are much more direct ways of dealing with congestion if needed.

We want to release some green belt land that’s near stations and not open to the public, to let people build attractive and well-designed homes. The ‘green belt’ isn’t as green as you think, as we explain in this post.

The RTPI’s Building in the green belt? report argues that releasing some green belt would cause a lot of congestion.

Here’s why we disagree. We don’t think doing nothing is an option. The current system causes untold human misery. We don’t need all these artificial limits on building more homes.

We support more investment in transport but that takes time

We support the report’s implicit argument to invest more in transport. We also want to reduce long-distance commuting, a known cause of illness.

However, green belt and other planning reform is critically urgent and can be done much faster than building additional infrastructure.

We built millions of homes in the 1930s before the green belt and the current planning system.

By comparison, Crossrail 2 will take another 20 years. It has already been in the pipeline for decades.

In fact, the green belt itself prevented further historical extension of the Northern Line and possibly other tube lines. Many say that our current planning system and resulting high cost of land (with permission) is the main reason why new infrastructure takes so long and costs so much compared to many other countries.

Where we think the RTPI report is incomplete

We welcome the open-mindedness of the RTPI report, but we don’t agree.

1. It is attacking a bit of a straw man

The report assumes additions to five existing towns not touching the main Greater London built up area. We think it would make much more sense to release areas of green belt next to Greater London’s existing built-up area (and stations), to minimize people’s commutes. Those are the places where London’s growth was artificially halted in the 1950s.

Studies show bigger cities are more productive. That implies new homes should be as close to the centre of London as possible. House prices tell us the same. People prefer shorter commutes, other things being equal. Expanding towns that are already far into the green belt seems the wrong approach.

The green belt stops London growing organically, forcing people to leap over the green belt to commute a long way into London from towns outside it. Why make that worse?

2. It does not cover where these people are moving from

Unless the residents of all these new homes are delivered by stork, most will move from somewhere else in the area around Greater London. All other things being equal, people will choose to reduce their commute, not to increase it. Of course, some people will choose to move out to get a bigger home.

The report doesn’t estimate those percentages, understandably. We can’t know in advance.

3. The main direction of commuting is into London (not out)

If we allow more to be built around the edge of London, some will be occupied by people who are currently commuting in from longer distances, some by people who currently have homes nearer the centre.

Those who move further in will be reducing their commute and congestion.

4. Those moving out may use less congested outer Tube lines

Some people will choose to move outwards from inner zones if housing becomes more affordable in zone 6. (Of course, they won’t voluntarily choose a longer commute unless the better home is worth it for them.)

Many of those will already be using the congested inner sections anyway, and/or only increasing their usage of the less-congested outer Tube lines.

5. There are better ways to deal with congestion than blocking desperately-needed homes

For the remainder who use more of the inner Tube lines or use a car, they will cause more congestion. That’s one of the reasons why we support more sophisticated road congestion charges. As Barney Stringer has pointed out, we will have no choice once self-driving cars are here.

But it’s much better to allow more housing and then charge for the congestion if it happens. That way people can choose to live in better homes nearer work. It makes no sense at all to keep people jammed in tiny overpriced homes because we’re worried about traffic.

If the congestion gets bad, people will vote for sophisticated congestion charging, especially if their rent is 50% lower because of all the new homes.

6. It does not account for the impact of technology

Understandably, the report does not consider ride-sharing services like Uber, or self-driving cars. Uber only launched UberPool recently in London, and self-driving cars may be five or ten years away.

Yet ride-sharing services can radically reduce congestion. Increasing the number of people in a car from one to three or four causes a huge increase in capacity.

The report also makes the important point that working from home has increased — a strong recent trend that will also reduce congestion.

Those sorts of unforeseeable technological changes are one of the many reasons why central planning is so difficult. The Soviet Union failed for a reason.

We are not saying that planning is not valuable; just that we should all remember how inaccurate it will inevitably be. Life is just not that predictable.

The only thing we know is wrong is to assume the world will not change.

7. Most fundamentally, it does not cover high housing costs

The current situation causes untold needless human misery because people are forced to pay obscene and unnecessarily high housing costs. It is also a massive drag on the economy and a dangerous source of votes for extremist politicians.

It leads to overcrowding, uncertainty of tenure, stress and huge health problems.

A radical reform to allow enough housing to reduce rents would improve wellbeing immensely. The report does not cover those aspects.

We believe UK planning would give much better results if it took more account of prices.

The fact that land with planning permission can be worth hundreds of times the price of land without planning permission is incredibly strong evidence that we are not creating enough homes, and that the planning system is the main problem.

The only thing we know about the current system is that it doesn’t work

We have a horrible housing crisis and all of the evidence is that the restrictions on building are by far the main cause.

We welcome the RTPI’s open-minded approach and their involvement as we fix a system that has caused a disastrous and unsustainable rise in housing costs.

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