Reform is glacial but will not stop

When we want to describe something as moving painstakingly slowly, we use the term glacial. And on planning reform, we have certainly moved forward at a glacial pace.

Housing: 'UK created both a shortage of housing and an unstable house price bubble'
Housing: 'UK created both a shortage of housing and an unstable house price bubble'

Two decades ago, a report by the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank set out some of the failures caused by the system introduced by the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. The study noted: "We need a system which puts much more of the value of a development into better building and gives a share of the profits to local people. Only then will nimbyism fade ... As matters stand, we are set for another damaging boom in house prices."

However, no real reform occurred. As a result, an entirely predictable boom in house prices - and rents - took place. Unlike in some countries, where rents barely rose and house price increases were just due to poor monetary policy, the UK created both a shortage of housing and an unstable house price bubble.

The quality of new build housing is also appalling. Recent work by the Royal Institute of British Architects is a reminder that we are building houses that are too small and range in quality from mediocre to appalling. The endless stream of guidance, building regulation and so on has failed to do anything to increase the overall quality.

If you restrict the supply of land, it pushes up prices. If you turn developers into land speculators, and make buying a house about paying for planning permission, the quality of new builds falls. If you ignore the concerns of those living beside a development, they become outright nimbys. If you try central planning to solve issues around quality, you will fail.

The most interesting thing about my job is meeting so many people working in this area who are tired of building too few homes and tired of those that they do construct being of low quality. They want to do better, and feel better, about what they do.

I have met both developers and planners who are fed up with this situation.

Some of the more intelligent ministers and civil servants also grasp that the current system isn't working. They sense that a new system, where planners focus on helping delivery, developers build quality housing and local people are given a direct say in the process, must be the way forward.

Democracy invariably does the right thing in the end - yet often only after exhausting all other possibilities. Perhaps the last two decades of failure leading up to our current housing crisis, a crisis of both quality and quantity, was necessary to ensure change.

I feel that we may be close to a tipping point. Opponents of planning reform might comfort themselves that reform's progress has been glacial. But nothing stops a glacier. We will solve the housing crisis and eventually we will build more and better homes. It's just a matter of time.

Alex Morton is head of housing, planning and urban policy at the Policy Exchange think-tank.


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