If you think that the economy is posing a problem for house builders, you might want to consider the planning proposals put forward by the Conservatives.
“Jaw dropping” was one phrase that an expert on planning matters put to me. “Concerning” was the more sedate and political word chosen by the Home Builders Federation, who politely suggested it was a high risk strategy with potential unintended consequences.
I found the phrase “barking” coming readily to hand when I spoke to other people to check that I hadn’t missed the point of the Conservative’s Policy Green Paper No 14 – and I don’t mean the planning and housing problems associated with the borough.
If implemented this policy may well lead to a far greater threat to house building than the credit crunch. And I will leave for others to ponder on the social consequences of the proposals.
Put simply it appears to be a charter of rights for nimbys.
But, hey, leaving aside the boring policy stuff, there’s a juicy business opportunity in there for the sharp witted and less scrupulous.
Where to begin?
Let’s start with the title: Open Source Planning. Sounds lovely doesn’t it. And so modern being a notion borrowed from the IT world.
Sadly there is a fundamental conceptual flaw if you try to build your planning policies with this notion at the core.
Open source programming is a win-win, where you add in what works and everyone gains. In computer programming you have potentially infinite resources to share.
Planning – that is in the sense of where to plonk or not to plonk houses, shops or offices for instance – on the other hand is more often than not a win-lose game. Here the deal is that there are limited resources that must be shared, hopefully as fairly as possible.
Suggesting the notion that we can all contribute to the planning process and all come out as winners as a result is naive at best, stupid, possibly, and at worse it is cynical.
“Open source planning will engage local communities and foster a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship,” says the paper on page 2.
There is an alternative outcome: “Open source planning will create widespread disappointment with most people’s suggestions being ignored.”
As human resources experts will testify, suggestion boxes are worse than useless unless you can convince the potential participants that there is a realistic chance that their suggestions will be implemented. As often as not suggestion boxes that fail to deliver lead to greater alienation.
The paper makes much play on the “broken” system and the interference of bureaucrats.
And it makes an intriguing, although unsourced, statement that: “Recent academic research has found collaborative democracy – the idea that citizens should be actively involved in making the kind of decisions hitherto reserved for bureaucrats and elected representatives – to be a highly successful concept.”
No one can argue against that, of course collaborative democracy is a good thing, providing you can find enough people bothered to collaborate. Who really argues for more bureaucracy?
But let’s explore this “cut the bureaucracy” argument in the context of planning being a game of winners and losers. The complaint can be seen as rather akin to, say, Sir Alex Ferguson’s raging against the damage being done to the Premier league by poor refereeing.
The difference is that Sir Alex is not advocating playing matches without officials and leaving it to the players (who, let’s face it, know best) to sort it out among themselves. Indeed Sir Alex isn’t looking to reduce the numbers of “interfering men in black” at all.
What we need is better, more transparent bureaucracy that works with the flow of the game.
Before tackling any of the more substantive points there is one other broad point worth making. This document is “definition light”.
So the word “neighbourhood” is used regularly and in a way that suggests we know what is meant. There is however no definition other than to say that it is "a term we use to include villages, towns, estates, wards or other relevant local areas".
That tell us that it has a sort of spatial component that probably isn't as big as a city or county.
Deciding how a neighbourhood is constituted seems to me to be of the utmost importance and central to any debate of localism. Are these neighbourhoods self-determined or bureaucratically defined? Are they fixed or flexible over time? Can they be exclusive, or must they be inclusive?
It would seems to me that such a lack of attention to detail and definition on such a central point, even at this “Green Paper” stage, is a recipe that might easily lead to more bureaucrats rather than fewer needed to sort out an increased number of conflicts.
Now to a few selected highlights of the detail, there are too many issues (“concerns”, as HBF might put it) to cover them all here.
The earlier Conservative Party Policy Green Paper No 10, covering housing, stated: “The seeds of the next housing bubble have already been planted by Labour’s persistently low rates of housebuilding...Our first challenge, therefore, is to deliver enough of the homes people want, in the places people want them, in order to meet Britain’s unmet housing need.”
So, clearly the Conservatives will build more homes than Labour. Excellent news if you are a house builder or supplier to that market.
How will they do this? They will let local people decide. There will be no external pressure, other than through providing “fiscally neutral” incentives. These I have discussed before.
And sadly it is hard to see how, in the real world, bar a few exceptions, these incentives will work to “deliver enough of the homes people want, in the places people want them”.
The more expensive the housing stock is in the “neighbourhood” the more reasons there are to forego the tempting teaser from the state and say “no” to development.
What is more, people who now live in desirable areas would under the Open Source Planning policies have a further incentive to stop new homes being built in their neighbourhood.
It will raise the price of their homes and show prospective buyers that the neighbourhood is “not for building”. That’s worth at least £30,000 on the price of a house in many of England’s more pleasant spots.
The wording of the complaint about the “top-down” approach adopted by Labour is also intriguing in the light of the stated objective of building more homes than Labour.
“Unfortunately the present Government refused to believe that local authorities were capable of accurately gauging future local housing demand and, in many cases, interposed to impose significantly higher housing targets,” says the report on page 9.
I could not help but note that the complaint was not that the present Government refused to believe the local authorities and “reduced” the numbers. The implication, it would seem, is that the Conservatives will allow the local targets to drop, in many case.
So where are the “more homes” to come from? Presumably they will not in the places where those looking for new homes will be looking.
This will be a real headache for the house builders, especially now when large swathes of land in less desirable areas are submerged at values below a level that makes them worth developing, given the current levels of “regulatory overburden” attached to building.
More worrying perhaps is the take on affordable housing.
The paper states: “... under our localised planning system, local authorities will no longer have affordable housing targets imposed upon them by regional bureaucrats. Instead they will be able to decide for themselves what level of affordable housing to provide to meet their local needs...”
Whatever the reality concerning those who live in social housing, few if any councils would vote for more social housing if they felt – or feared the perception among the electorate might be – that the consequence would be the potential to import more “social problems”.
If you do not have social housing, you do not have social housing tenants. Let someone else deal with the problems. Building social homes is seldom a neighbourhood vote winner.
Taken overall the policy almost inevitably would encourage and provide the tools for communities to "price out of undesireables”. The potential social consequences are extremely unsettling. The consequences for social house building are potentially devastating.
The document is, however, not without humour.
The policy sets out a rather cute way for developers to overcome local objectors – buy then off.
On page 13 it states: “...we anticipate that in many cases developers will choose to avoid the need for formal assessment of the application, and hence speed up the planning process by reaching voluntary agreements to compensate nearby householders for the impact of the development on their amenity, in return for their support.”
And for those construction firms looking for a business opportunity in these desperate times there is a corker latent within the policy.
Self-builders, along with Local Housing Trusts, will be exempt from paying the local planning gain tariff.
So here’s what to do. Organise groups of would-be self builders into consortia, buy through the consortia plots of land from friendly farmers or local landowners at a shade more than the professional house builders can stomache, get planning permission, have each member of the “self-build consortia” forward sell the homes, then build them out and pass them on.
It’s a winner.