How richly ironic it was that the prime minister’s ambition to deliver a 10 year “great, great project” of levelling up should be revealed on the same day as his government retreated from its plan to relax planning laws to allow more houses to be built.
It was the least surprising U-turn since the prime ministerial Range Rover had to turn round in Downing Street, which is a cul-de-sac, but it was nevertheless entertaining to see Boris Johnson’s rhetoric self-destruct quite so spectacularly.
Every government since the 1970s has promised to ease planning restrictions, and every government has bowed before the democratic imperative of voters not liking it. Every time. It is always a case of the stoppable force meeting the immovable object.
I have had more conversations with housing ministers than I care to remember in which they say that this time it will be different, because they understand the problem in a way that their predecessors did not.
One that sticks in my mind was with Nick Boles, who was minister for planning in David Cameron’s government – more grandly, he was “minister for decentralisation”; this levelling-up rhetoric is not new. He told me confidently that there were tracts of poor-quality agricultural land all over south east England which were so flat and boring that no one would object if they were built on. He found my scepticism exasperating.
Anyway, it didn’t happen on his watch, and it is not happening on Robert Jenrick’s watch either. If small state Conservatives don’t like the government putting up taxes to save the inheritances of Surrey homeowners, you would have thought they would be just as exercised by Jenrick’s Stalinist national plan for statutory house-building targets for each local area. Some of them are, in fact, but most of them don’t want to be accused of being nimbys and so they have wisely sat back and waited for the government’s plan to hit the immovable object, which it has now done.
The zonal system, dividing the entire country into “growth”, “renewal” and “protection” zones, will be replaced by “a more limited set of changes”, reports George Grylls in The Times. The attempt to reduce the rights of local people to object to building will be abandoned. And, because 244,000 new homes were built last year, which is close to the 300,000 target mentioned in the Conservative manifesto, the idea of mandatory targets will be dropped.
This was inevitable, even before the Lib Dems won the Chesham and Amersham by-election. If you think the “Liberal” Democrats were opportunistic for opposing the liberalisation of planning laws, you should note that Labour also opposed the plans on the grounds that they imposed the will of central government on local people.
So while conventional left-liberal opinion is united in thinking that nothing must be allowed to get in the way of building more houses, the political parties are – less vocally – aligned with the immovable object.
Perhaps it is time, therefore, for conventional opinion to consider whether the solution to the country’s housing problems is as simple as it thinks it is. The main problem is that house prices in most of the places in the UK where people want to live are too high, so that young people cannot buy a place of their own. But it is not as obvious as it ought to be that overriding local objections to new housing would solve that problem.
A small increase in the supply of housing is unlikely to have much effect on price in the face of such high demand. Changing the taxation of housing seems more likely to have the kind of dramatic effects that are needed. My personal manifesto would be to abolish stamp duty, replace council tax with a progressive annual tax on the value of property, and tax second homes more heavily. That would allocate housing more efficiently, permanently reduce house prices and shift some of the market from buy-to-let to owner occupation.
I am all in favour of denser building in urban areas, which is what has been happening in London and many of Britain’s big cities over the past two decades, but I don’t think we are at the stage where we need to destroy the countryside in the name of social justice.
In a way, my plan may be just as unrealistic as that of the “just build more houses” brigade, because if there is one thing British voters like even less than new houses in their backyard, it is property taxes. But at least my plan would work, whereas relaxing planning restrictions would arbitrarily blight many people’s quality of life for no real gain.
As it is, Boris Johnson’s ambition to go on and on for 10 years will probably end up with a different housing minister promising, finally, to liberalise planning laws and to build almost 300,000 houses a year.
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