We are an umbrella group of campaigns with the objective to end the housing crisis with the positive support of local people for new housing near them. We are entirely volunteer led. We are tenure neutral and strictly non-partisan. Our proposal for parishes to have more power to approve homes in their own green belt was partly implemented in the 2018 NPPF. The substance of our proposals to give small groups of residents, such as single streets, the power to approve more development in their own area were endorsed in the final report of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission and in the White Paper on Planning for the Future. The effective giving organisation Founders Pledge recently found our approach to have high potential impact.
1. Is the current planning system working as it should do? What changes might need to be made? Are the Government’s proposals the right approach?
The current planning system is not working as it should. Over the past fifty years, a failure to plan for plentiful housing and infrastructure of the right quality and types in the right places has led to grotesque regional inequality, to human misery on an enormous scale, and to damage to average earnings and wages of near to twenty percent. We need a much better planning system.
The current needless housing crisis has caused enormous injustice and human suffering. It shatters lives, wrecks families, damages health, hurts the environment through increased long-distance commuting, increases poverty and inequality, and causes profound damage to wages and opportunity. We must do everything in our power to end it.
But the system has resisted almost all efforts at improvement in previous decades because most would-be reformers have almost entirely neglected that the main economic effect of the current planning system – stopping development — is highly popular, especially with homeowners and secure tenants.
Figure 1: Historic housing costs in England
Source: Myers, John. “Fixing Urban Planning with Ostrom: Strategies for Existing Cities to Adopt Polycentric, Bottom-Up Regulation of Land Use.” Mercatus Center, February 2020. https://www.londonyimby.org/research.
Furthermore, since the Second World War the housing stock has never grown at the net percentage rate of the 1840s, let alone the much higher rate of the 1940s.
Figure 2: Historic housing supply in England and Wales
One hundred years ago, a house cost approximately the same as a car. Since the Second World War, almost everything we make has become better and cheaper, except homes.
And homes are not expensive everywhere: many parts of this country and many other countries and places manage to maintain a plentiful supply of homes so that the price does not rise far above the cost of building more.
Based on seventy years of failed reform attempts and from extensive conversations with a very wide range of stakeholders, we believe the only plausible ways to fix the system for the long term are to adapt and improve it so that it is much better at finding win-win outcomes that allow housing and infrastructure to be built in a way that benefits local communities and wins their support.
Finding win-win solutions is always easier when fewer people are involved. For that reason, for several years we have been advocating allowing communities to allow development on very small scales where they see the benefits for them. We suggest that residents of a single stretch of street between two crossroads or of a single city block of houses surrounded by streets should be able to decide by a 60% majority to allow more development of a specified form on their street or block. There will, of course, need to be rules to protect other residents, particularly those on other streets or blocks. There are more details of those proposals at londonyimby.org/policy.
Those or similar ideas have now been endorsed by the Royal Town Planning Institute; by Ben Derbyshire, the former head of the Royal Institute of British Architects; by the Centre for Cities; by the effective giving organisation Founders Pledge; by the current Leader of the House in a report for the Institute of Economic Affairs; by the Government's Commission on Building Better, Building Beautiful; and most recently in the Planning for the Future White Paper itself.
The Government is right to seek more certainty and predictability in the planning system. That will reduce costs of development, which will make it easier and enable the construction of more homes. However, there are many zoning systems around the world with far more certain rules than the White Paper is proposing. Zoning or other systems are, on their own, not necessarily enough to ensure plentiful, affordable housing, although they are generally a strong improvement over discretionary systems like our current planning system.
In addition, the White Paper leaves many details unspecified which will be crucial in ensuring the success of the reforms. We have concerns that if those reforms are implemented badly, they may end up being counterproductive.
For example, it is hard to see how national policies on construction management can be workable both in Westminster and in rural Lancashire. If the rules are exactly the same, they may either render development unviable in Lancashire, or cause near-riots in Westminster.
There is enormous scope to strengthen our towns and cities by adding more homes well through gentle intensification with community support. Popular areas like Georgian Bath or Edinburgh’s New Town have five to ten times as much housing per acre as a typical suburb. The problem is that such intensification under the current system normally brings nothing but inconvenience and loss of amenity to local residents.
Figure 3: A low density suburb with more potential
Source: Google Maps
Figure 4: popular high density terraced housing
Figure 5: A suburban alleyway with wasted potential (source: Google Maps)