Natalie Elphicke: Planning is not the problem that stops houses being built
Natalie is co-founder and chairman of Million Homes, Million Lives, and is a non-executive director of a leading building society. Follow Natalie on Twitter.
Another day, another demand for a free for all in planning approval for new homes. A free-for-all in planning is not the answer to increasing the numbers of homes being built. Since John Prescott was Deputy Prime Minister and in charge of such things there has been a relentless call on planning authorities to approve, approve, approve, and the rules have been steadily relaxed. But approve, approve, approve did not result in build, build, build. Over 280,000 fewer homes were built under the Labour government between 1998 and 2010 than in the previous 13 years of the Conservative government. More homes overall, and more affordable homes, have been built in each of 2011 and 2012 than in 2010. More council housing has been built in the last 2 years than over the entire 13 years of the Labour government.
Low housebuilding has been a longstanding issue in this country, so to blame NIMBYs is a bit lazy. Of course large housebuilders want clean green fields to build 2,000-10,000 homes if they can. But that may not what our country needs or wants in all places or at any cost. Planning officers, councillors and those communities who want sensible planned housing and infrastructure which preserves quality of life and opportunity for all in their community are not the ones holding back housing numbers.
The question, and it is a longstanding one, is how to turn planning potential into new homes, with priority for re-using old land first. There are two challenges: the first is the housebuilding industry itself. There is a small band of huge building companies who build the most. Following the credit crunch many housebuilders stayed in business by moth-balling sites, reducing housebuilding numbers by around 40 per cent, stoking up demand and thereby prices and profitability. That strategy has worked. Housebuilders have been profitable and resilient in the last few years. Most have not gone to the wall, as they did when they pursued a ‘build more quickly and sell more cheaply’ strategy in previous housing recessions.
Many of the large housebuilders are very good indeed. But it is like having only the big supermarkets, and having too few local shops or petrol stations. As many as half of the planned sites may be too small for the big builders. It is not commercially viable for big builders to work on these sites. That is why Taxpayer's Homebuild could help, unlocking many of these smaller sites and releasing the builder in all of us.
The second challenge is information about what planning permissions are in place at any one time and who owns them. We could expand the opportunity for property entrepreneurialism if the information were easily accessible. At present there is not a central register of planning approvals or planning starts. This could be done, and quickly, as the IT platform for such a service is up and running. We have impressive government data facilities now, for stamp duty transactions and agricultural land payments. These can be monitored on a real time basis, and use state of the art mapping services. There is a public and accessible Land Registry system where you can find out details about property ownership.
However, we have no national public search or database of planning approvals or starts in a public and real time way. Such a database could enable a trading platform for planning permissions. It could enable local authorities to have better information about planning progress in neighbouring authorities. Councillors making decisions on planning would have fuller information about the status of developments and developers in their area over a period of time. Open access information could allow community groups to actively engage with the worst of the land hoggers, including many public bodies, who have sites which blight many of our towns and which are often a magnet for bad behaviour. In short, the national transparency agenda should have planning approvals in its sights.
Instead of attacking people who care about our countryside and their communities, maybe we should start by incentivising the building of small developments, by maximising the building out of sites with existing planning permissions, and by putting in place a national, accessible, and transparent, planning register. Let’s build out more of what’s already there, and be slow to ruin our communities and our countryside for the sake of someone else's easy profit.