Planning reforms are essential to fixing the housing crisis. The question is which reforms.
Somehow, being a millionaire isn’t how I imagined: I thought it would involve a bit less daily rooting through sock drawers in search of un-holed hosiery, for a start. But, alas, I’m not a real tycoon. As with thousands of Londoners of my age and background, the status arises entirely from the inflated paper value of a residential property portfolio. In cash terms, I’m worse than skint.
And despite the widely reported cooling of the property market, a steady trickle of people seem to be finding themselves in a similar position. Figures released this week show house prices across the UK rising 11.7% in the year to July; in London the rise was 19.1%.
Nearly everyone agrees this is a problem, because of the future threat to economic stability as well as the current unfairness to colleagues in their 20s and 30s who see any hopes of owning a home receding over the horizon. The solution depends on your political outlook: where I come from, the consensus is that housing supply could be increased, and entry-level prices eased, by relaxing planning controls (though not for our immediate neighbours, of course).
But there are other views, and some of them appear in an interesting chapter in a new book* published by the Society of Labour Lawyers. In it, two planning law heavyweights, John Hobson QC and Reuben Taylor QC, both of Landmark Chambers, London, agree that the most crucial problem facing the planning system is indeed that ‘more houses are required, for more people on a more affordable basis’. Criticism of the planning system, however, is ‘unfounded and unfair’.
Rather, they make nine policy recommendations, ranging from the highly sensible via the worthy but impractical to the - in my opinion - quixotic.
My sensible list is topped with making the public sector’s redundant property assets available for housing as quickly before and consolidating compulsory purchase legislation. Introducing a differential system of retail rates in favour of independent retailers also sounds a good idea, though I suspect chain stores would find ways around it.
Meanwhile, ‘a significant programme of public sector house-building’ would obviously be welcome, though I am less sure of the stronger central government role Hobson and Taylor regard as essential. And the proposal that ‘centralised planning powers should be used to allocate land on a long-term basis for manufacturing industrial uses’ sounds to me as if it comes from the wrong century.
But this is an important debate and, assuming the current Scottish distraction can be parked, must be central to the general election campaign. I can think of few other problems of such national importance where opinion as to what needs to be done is so polarised.
In the meantime, one paragraph from Hobson and Taylor catches my eye. A discussion on ‘land-banking’ by developers - which they reckon is not a problem - cites an Office of Fair Trading conclusion that ‘the fragmented nature of land records’ makes it impossible to determine whether the market is being distorted. Surely all sides can agree that the absolute first step to tackling the housing market problem is to find out what is going on.
Any further suggestions? And, in the meantime, could someone lend me a tenner ‘til my expenses come through?
*Law Reform 2015: a manifesto for change , Society of Labour Lawyers, Profile Books Ltd
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor