Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Why granting more planning permissions doesn't cut house prices

If you want to know why I admire Ian Jack so much as a writer, try his London Review of Books piece on The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain by Brett Christophers.

He begins, characteristically, with a little bit of autobiography, remembering his childhood in Fife:
A single-track road ran across it, looping downhill through the gorse and wild raspberries to a beach where many of us learned to swim. Elsewhere, mysterious holes in the ground and abandoned military architecture proved ideal for games that involved imaginary rifles and the great thrill of hiding, and of hunting those who hid. 
Then one day the local paper carried a small item reporting the sale of this extensive territory to someone who was never named and therefore became ‘a mystery buyer’. Our families wondered who it might be, and why they would want to buy such a ruin-filled and unkempt acreage. 
The newspaper didn’t enlighten us, and for several years nothing at all happened to what we called ‘the barracks’, until in 1964 the first of the road bridges opened and our part of Fife became commutable by car from Edinburgh. Over the next decade crescents and avenues of showy villas with built-in garages and first-floor sitting rooms transformed the army’s old patch, spilling down to the beach and erasing many of our paths and hideouts.
Jack then sets out Christophers' argument at length, without making it sound as though the ideas in it are entirely his own. Some other LRB reviewers should take note of his technique.

But what struck me most in this piece was this passage, which explains why the unaffordability of housing in Britain has little to do with the Nimbys that haunt the opinions of many young activists:
In Christophers's words, "The private sector does not lack land; and nor, more significantly, does it lack land that is suitable for commercial development, or for which planning permission has been granted."
A report in the Times last year showed that out of more than 1.7 million applications for residential planning permission granted between 2006 and 2014, fewer than half had been completed after three years. According to the Local Government Association in 2016, councils consistently approved more than 80 per cent of major residential planning applications; but the difference between the number of houses being approved and those actually being built was almost 500,000 – ‘and this gap is increasing.’ 
The hardly radical figure of Oliver Letwin identified the real brake on house-building when he published the interim conclusions to his inquiry into low completion rates last year. What governed the numbers, he decided, was the absorption rate – "the rate at which newly constructed homes can be sold into (or are believed by the house-builder to be able to be sold successfully into) the local market without materially disturbing the market price". 
For ‘materially disturbing’ read ‘lowering’: to protect profits, developers are sitting on land that has been given planning permission. ‘Efficiency’ in this instance is a concept confined to the shareholder.
Letwin later published his review of housing development, which made limited suggestions for improving the 'absorption rate', but fell some way short of offering a comprehensive solution to the problem.

What more can you ask of a favourite writer than that they provide you with the facts to defend views that you already hold?

1 comment:

nigel hunter said...

Is a way to be found where the council can put a clause into the boulders contract that he MUST build the houses within ,say 2 years, If not done the contract is cancelled and the land resold to the council. This can give the council a years profit from the re purchase and it can be sold on to another builder. The council, however, MUST build houses on the sight within , say, 5 years. Just a thought.