A “Plan” for Housing?

DSCN0756The latest report from the Centre for Cities – Delivering Change: Building homes where we need them – is a welcome piece of work which identifies the extent of the housing problem in our most successful cities and points the way to some solutions. The solutions are not new, they’ve pretty much all been suggested before, but no politician at local or national level seems brave enough to take the decisions that are needed.

The problem is set out as follows by the report authors:

“There is a political consensus that the UK needs more homes. While this is a national issue, it is most acute in the country’s most successful cities. There is sufficient land that could provide homes in the areas where people want to live, but local and national decision-makers must be bold in identifying it based on the merits of individual sites, rather than based on long standing and often arbitrary designations.”

Our most successful cities are the least affordable places to live – see Figure 1 below.

least affordable

Centre for Cities 2014:7

The focus of the Centre for Cities report is on land allocation as the primary constraint on our ability to deliver enough homes and on providing new homes where infrastructure, jobs and services are in place. They propose three main components that are required to deliver sufficient land for housing in successful cities:

  • increasing densities
  • working with neighbouring authorities
  • re-designating green belt land

The first of these components, densification, basically means identifying all brownfield land and open space in our urban areas that could be built on. This often requires investment from the public sector to assemble land, provide critical infrastructure and finance affordable housing directly, so is not a cheap option. Equally it is also likely to be politically sensitive, as intensive development in existing urban areas frequently brings challenge and dissent from those living close by.

The second component, collaboration across boundaries, is an obvious one, where working together to provide for housing needs across the city region is critical. The focus here, the report says, should be on developing new homes close to railway stations and other key transport routes, which could potentially deliver significant numbers of new homes to meet the needs of our successful cities.

The final component is about evaluating land on its merits rather than existing designations and is aimed at the re-designtation of green belt land as a critical factor that currently constrains the future growth of successful cities. Again, land close to transport links and adjacent to urban areas is the focus for potential development.

The report points out that lack of housing hinders growth and makes our most successful cities unaffordable to many, and this requires political and policy change to make a difference. It also requires politicians to take some potentially unpopular decisions and to be brave in the face of opposition!

The concept of the green belt is to stop sprawl and has to some extent achieved this. However, in many areas where growth occurs, development leapfrogs the green belt and produces an extended form of sprawl, further away from the main urban area. This in itself generates lengthier journeys to work, more time spent traveling, congestion and wider environmental impact. A review of this outdated policy is a must in areas around our most successful and least affordable cities.

So to Bristol, identified as one of only three cities outside of the Greater South East with the least affordable housing in the country, where demand far outstrips supply, making it the 9th least affordable place to live out of 63 UK cities! This matters for many reasons, not least the inequalities exacerbated by the divide between those that own their own homes and those that don’t. Add to that the fact that high housing costs hinder growth, make it difficult for people to access the jobs that are available, make it difficult for businesses to recruit and reduce overall spending power, and you can see the problem. But what’s the solution here in Bristol, how do we address these affordability issues and provide the homes that are needed?

Centre for Cities 2014:22

Centre for Cities 2014:22

Firstly, the report talks about the role of the suburbs, where 2/3 of people live in Bristol. These are traditionally low density, green areas with plenty of brownfield land and opportunities for densification. However, development of these small and constrained sites is often costly, time consuming and difficult. But there are opportunities that need to be maximised.

Secondly, the need to rethink the green belt around Bristol is highlighted. This is not a new idea and there have been various proposals to build into the green belt to the SW and SE of Bristol in the past. In these areas, where green belt land is often of poor quality and is close to transport infrastructure, such as rail stations, park and ride sites and planned bus rapid transit routes, the viability and potential for development is obvious, but strongly resisted. The green belt acts as a very strong deterrent to growth.

Overall, the Centre for Cities report talks in positive terms about some of the changes currently underway in Bristol, where small initiatives and talk about better strategic planning is mentioned, but is it enough? How can joint working and strategic planning succeed when the approach of at least one neighbouring authority is to turn its back on Bristol and deny the need to help plan for Bristol’s growth?

I applaud Bristol’s ambitions and attempts to accommodate and plan for grown but question our ability to realise this potential as a city within existing administrative and governance boundaries and constraints. Until real change at a political level is instigated Bristol’s affordability crisis will only get worse!

The report also outlines some excellent examples of growth, development and collaboration which maybe Bristol could learn from. The ideas include better use of public land (something that is happening in Bristol), establishing a local tariff or roof tax to fund infrastructure, improving Compulsory Purchase powers to enable land assembly, and green belt swaps in appropriate locations to enable city growth – all worth considering. Alongside these ideas the report also calls for more support from national government, to take the strain off local government and to take responsibility for the housing problem at a national level. The need for a national strategic plan is alluded to, where national government works with city regions to identify, allocate and assemble sites, providing greater financial incentives to make this worthwhile at a local level.

For me a national plan that takes responsibility and control, allocates targets in collaboration with local areas, and provides incentives for new build could just make a difference but will any politicians be brave enough to go down this route in the near future?

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19 thoughts on “A “Plan” for Housing?

  1. I thought “localism” was the new trendy word from all parties. This sounds more like the RSS over again, and what does Greenbelt swaps mean? I see housing was not a major issue in a recent poll, which says more about how we have lost faith in politicians than the obvious extent of the problem. Like it or not, the public are concerned about our rising population and associate that with lack of housing, so there is not so much sympathy as the situation deserves. We need a real change, where issues are explained and can be discussed openly and then there would be far fewer objections to planned developments. Even Nimby’s realise we must have more houses! However, whilst we rely on private house builders, the promise of cheaper housing is likely to be a false one. Publicly owned housing can only achieve that!

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    • Hi Paul, yes housing comes and goes as an issue in polls, which means it also tends to float around in political priorities as well. Green belt swaps basically are about utilising some land currently designated as GB but adding the same amount of land back into the GB nearby. I agree about publicly owned/funded housing being a key part of the answer, but there are also things that could be done through public land assembly making better use of public land and diversifying the housebuilding industry in the UK to match other European countries.

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      • But the aim of the Greenbelt is to prevent urban sprawl. If you allow land to be moved, then it’s pointless having a Greenbelt, bit like me putting an extra hole in my belt and claiming I’m not putting on weight. Sounds like a dishonest argument to me. The Core Strategy protects the Bristol Greenbelt into the next decade, but as is said, there is very little of that!

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      • This discussion about green belts reminds me of the discussion in the USA about urban growth boundaries. Some claim that it is necessary to curb sprawl. Others say that by restricting the area where housing can be developed, growth boundaries inflate land prices which make housing more expensive.

        One way to address both concerns would be to shift the property tax off of privately-created building values and onto publicly-created land values. The lower tax on buildings makes them cheaper to construct, improve and maintain. Surprisingly, the higher tax on land helps keep land prices more affordable also. By reducing the profit from land speculation, a tax on land values reduces the speculative demand for land and this helps moderate land prices. As an added bonus, the tax on land values creates an economic incentive to develop high-value land. High-value land tends to be infill sites near existing urban infrastructure amenities (like transit) and these are the very places where new development should occur.

        Thus, by shifting the property tax off of privately-created building values and onto publicly-created land values, we could create more compact and more affordable communities. And, because compact communities require less extensive infrastructure systems, this would save the taxpayers money as well.

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  2. I’m intrigued as to how this fits with the annualised target of 1500 dwellings per year in the Core Strategy. This suggests that fewer new homes will be delivered every year in comparison to the previous year as more were built in the period 2007- 2013. Surely we ought to be building more every year?

    I also wonder at how the number of dwellings which can be built on brownfield land was derived- the figure of about 12,200 sounds to be ambitious unless it is on land currently allocated for something else. Do you know how and when the figures were compiled? The figure of 2,540 dwellings to be built in the green would suggest that there will be little or none of it left! Given that almost all Bristol’s green belt is to the south of the city would this also suggest a change for North Somerset?

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    • Robert, not sure I can answer those questions, don’t know where Centre for Cities got the figures from – quite possibly previous assessments done for the RSS or SHMAs? I think the pressure is definitely on N.Somerset as most the green belt land identified appears to be around Portishead and Long Asthon – much of it previously allocated under the RSS.

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  3. An interesting article and some interesting responses. I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s speech to Parliament in the early 1900s. He told of a low-income neighborhood in London where the workers had to pay a bridge toll to access jobs on the other side of the river. When the public was made aware of the situation, they demanded action by the government. So the government spent tax dollars to free the bridge. Shortly thereafter, rents in the low-income community rose by the amount of the foregone tolls. Thus, the workers were no better off than they had been before (and were worse off if they didn’t use the bridge). And taxpayers dollars, intended to benefit the poor workers of this neighborhood ended up enriching affluent landlords instead.

    Thus, whenever the public sector takes action to improve a community, the private appropriation of publicly-created land values turns that improvement into a double-edged sword that may do as much harm as it does good. Part of the solution to this problem would be to capture publicly-created land values for the community that created it. This would have the following benefits:
    1. Public infrastructure (like transportation facilities & services, etc.) might be financially self-sustaining to a greater degree. As a result, taxes on labor and capital could be reduced, making the economy more robust.
    2. Reducing the private appropriation of publicly-created land values would reduce the speculative demand for land. This would reduce land prices.
    3. If value capture were implemented via a tax on land values, there would be an economic impetus to develop high-value land. Thus landowners would be more motivated to develop infill sites – and this could reduce pressure for premature development of green field and greenbelt sites.

    More information can be found at “Funding Infrastructure for Growth, Sustainability and Equity” at http://media.wix.com/ugd/ddda66_d46304b5437c178e2f092319a6f30364.pdf

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    • Hi Rick, many thanks for your comments. I think the debate over capturing land value increases is an interesting one that keeps coming back but where in more recent decades politicians have been more reluctant to actually implement the idea. It used to yo-yo between Labour and Conservative governments, with one implementing and the other abolishing! It is of course the most obvious answer and most logical – but then politics is rarely logical. Thanks also for the link to your report – very useful. Tessa

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  4. Land supply is not the problem. Look at all the brown field land that there is available and not built up one. Releasing more land will not therefore result in a sudden boost to hour building. So the green belt debate is a red herring pushed by volume house builders simply because they can build easy houses for the mobile rich. This ignores the real problem which is housing for the increasingly house-price poor, many of whine of not income-poor. The only effective means of increasing the supply of this much needed ‘affordable’ housing is to bypass the volume house builders and empower the community to claw back increases in land values when they allocate housing land by means of an effective land tax as some have suggested here. Houses for the modern house price poor (soon to be a majority?) can then be provided by the local community for the local community. It used to called council housing and was best delivered by a New Town Development Company model. Labour are promising (once again!) to do it if elected. We’ve been THERE before!

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    • Hi Alan, whilst I take your point, I do think there is a value in properly reviewing our green belt to see if it can be used to accommodate some appropriate growth where needed, and extended where valuable. I agree with you point about affordable housing and need for community empowerment, it does seem to come back to land values and tax, and community benefit. Whilst I think the political parties have made some promises about retaining benefit locally they’re not talking about major investment in social/council housing, which is a shame.

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  5. There are four problems that I don’t see being addressed here:
    1) Releasing some Green Belt sites MIGHT work, but only if the resulting development was genuinely plan-led, rather than simply opening up sites for generic market housing that will achieve nothing other than reduce the focus on recycling of derelict sites.
    2) The existing settlement pattern in the UK offers very few places where new New Towns could be successfully located such that they would acquire a sense of place rather than simply being plonked in (valued) countryside between existing towns. Incremental growth of existing settlements is therefore generally better: 9 times out of 10 this should be directly connected to the recycling of derelict sites because those sites are a blight on the settlements and they are usually also well-located in relation to existing transport and utility infrastructure.
    3) Neither the planning system nor the housing market is currently geared up to addressing the massively unsustainable condition of the existing housing stock, and is actually making it worse by tending to build new-build housing in the wrong locations, of the wrong types and sizes and at the top end of the price spectrum, and with a tokenistic glance towards energy and climate change.
    4) The table which ‘shows that the most successful cities are the least affordable’ is a great worry, because I don’t see how an unaffordable city can be deemed successful. This is where we get to the real root of the problem, which is successive governments allowing land and housing to become an investment commodity over and above being somewhere to live. The fact is that the housing crisis cannot be solved by releasing greenfield sites any more than it can be solved by recycling brownfield sites: it can only be solved by direct intervention in the land and property market – and there’s not much chance of that because the big businesses to whom the government is most subservient rely on the property market as a safe and lucrative portfolio.

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    • Hi Andrew, thanks for your comments. Green belt use would have to be selective and not the first answer, but there are some appropriate areas where it could work. Agree about New Towns, but it does feel like these are part of the solution, as they have been in the past. The state of existing stock is indeed a major concern often ignore – whose responsibility is it? Totally agree about a city not being successful if it has such an affordability problem, just serves to illustrate the lack of joined up thinking on cities – focus on GDP & jobs growth as success. Also your point about investment value of land/houses is key – people now reliant on the house they live in to fund their retirement – how did we let things get to that position?

      The solution in terms of LVT, collecting and retaining value from land after permission granted, is obvious but not on political agendas – so that leaves us scrabbling around trying to find other solutions that play at the edges of the problem.

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      • I agree, Tessa. On the specific point about Green Belt review, I think I’d have to take a harder line and say that whilever it is preyed upon as a land value feeding frenzy for landowners, with no mechanism to capture that value to fund the things that need funding, it should remain a no-no. Otherwise the bath water is let out but the baby hasn’t even been washed!

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  6. “how did we let things get to that position.” Perhaps the tax changes by Gordon Brown, often referred to as “robbing our pensions” played a part as financial advice recommended property as an alternative. Blair also liked the idea of private landlords and with banks willingly providing “buy to let” mortgages the whole think took off with people with very few assets becoming landlords. Even the credit crunch did not really damage these people because interest rates have stayed low and rents have risen, a win-win situation for them, a disaster for first time buyers. I’m afraid the cat is now out of the bag, putting it back won’t be easy!

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  7. People choose where to live and that people exercising that choice tell us where houses are needed. Choice of where to live is significantly affected by the location of jobs. Many jobs today can be located anywhere, particularly because of internet connectivity. Government employs many people, directly and indirectly. People in Northern Ireland used to send car registration information and annual licence fees to Coleraine, Co Londonderry. Now we send them to Swansea. We all need to stop thinking of housing as being “separate” and a “problem”. It is a necessity, it is not separate but “connected” (particularly to jobs) and there is a lot of it out there which needs occupied and cared for.

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    • Hi Arthur, thank you for your comments. The issue of choice is a critical one which often tends to get ignored. The link with jobs is also important for housing, as lack of housing in the right places does lead to longer journeys and people spending more and more time travelling, with all the negative social implications that brings with it. Your final point about housing being a necessity is the most important and some of our politicians would do well to remember that!

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      • I think you are missing the point. The jobs are not fixed in space. The empty houses are. Government has a massive influence on where (at least) its own public sector jobs are located. Move some jobs beside existing vacant and derelict housing and watch the change. We should learn to do more with what we’ve got (lots of empty houses) rather than try to build more and leave the empty homes still empty. The e-publication “Adventures in Regeneration” by Nick Ewbank is a great example of tackling derelict and vacant properties in Folkestone, bringing them back into use and regenerating the town by wise investment. It is freely available at http://www.nickewbank.co.uk/downloads/ADVENTURES-IN-REGENERATION-by-Nick-Ewbank.pdf

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      • Derelict sites and run-down housing areas (with vacant local shops, vandalism etc) are a massive burden on towns and cities – partly because people will choose not to live there if they can, making the problem worse, and partly because they are unattractive places for the private sector to invest in. So it’s not just about moving jobs near to those places but also recognising that public intervention to turn those places around is essential. Building on greenfield sites while leaving run-down areas to rot is socially and environmentally wrong and it’s also very shortsighted from an economic perspective.

        As someone said to me recently, the current government wants to fix the housing crisis without spending any money, and that simply isn’t possible.

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  8. The first is a matter of practicality. Businesses don’t apply to develop brownfield as effectively as it could, no matter the designations. The second is legally required and occurs across the country already, but could look beyond old RDF boundaries. The Green Belt needs to be reevaluated just like any policy. There are areas which could be developed but I think two questions should be asked first to be socially sustainable (i.e. to manageabley achieve buy-in from local communities and evolve natural functioning communities). First, consultation/ research before designation should extensively look at what areas can be developed with least resistance and how this can be approved. Developers’ desire to maximise profit (which they are entitled to do) should have equal weight to local people’s opinions and valuation of different green spaces. Marine environmental planning is a field where this is becoming increasingly important- balancing maximum biodiversity against minimum impact on fisheries and shipping, using extensive surveying and big data computing. Secondly any proposal for green belt designation should consider Creep. In thirty years, will the same map as above for Bristol be produced with new red areas around the river, Bath and Gloucester. That is what people fear and that is what has always happened in satellite towns of the 1950’s which are now large towns complaining of over-population, reduced services and traffic congestion. Locals aren’t NIMBY’s but their complaints are hard to manage after a sh*storm has been brewed up by announcing a controversial scheme and branding local people and the environment as inevitable losers in the process.

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