This is our truth, tell us yours
Eric Pickles has been talking about town planning.
Good for him.
As socialists, we have a keen and acute interest in housing. It’s the most basic of human needs after food and water. It’s also the most tangled of political policy issues.
The first thing to say is that Eric Pickles got something right in his speech to the RTPI. Development Control is not planning. Unfortunately, what Eric is proposing is not planning either. Instead we’re moving to a system of development enabling, where neighbourhood plans are lawful only if they enable housing development, and useless if residents wish to restrict development.
What’s odd about Eric’s rhetoric is that it never properly addresses two symptoms of a deeper rooted problem. One is the lack of social and affordable housing across most of the UK. The other is the plague of empty homes in many northern towns and cities.
The deep rooted problem is the lack of any meaningful economic planning, a consequence of the tyranny of the market. We have thousands of empty houses, but in the wrong places, and even where there is demand for houses, we have no coherent mechanism for bringing houses up to modern standards.
The consequence of not planning for economic growth is that the south east of England soaks up 400 times as much transport investment, per head, as the north east of England. The vagaries of the market, and its irrationality inflict additional costs onto the state cleaning up the mess they make.
Not inhibiting the market is a matter of principle for the Tries in power, but there’s another more venal impulse at work. By allowing new building on greenfield sites the government is allowing builders to enter the market at a lower price than individual buyers pay to buy second hand houses. The abandoned older houses of inner-city Liverpool or Gateshead represent thousands of working class families savings diminished or wiped out by the failure of government to deliver a well regulated housing market for anyone except the big housebuilders.
Big housebuilders, of course, donate to the Tory party. The people who live in inner-city terraces don’t. The last generation of Tories trumpeted housing as an investment for everyone. By allowing housing policy to be made for the benefit of Barratts and Wimpey this generation of Tories is showing their true colours.
The problem with private sector housing failure is two fold. The first is that someone has to pick up the tab for dealing with the consequences. Whether the solution is demolition or regeneration, someone has to enable it, and that bill usually falls to local authorities.
The second problem though goes right back to the beginnings of economics, and is intrinsically linked to the problem of land. Broadly speaking, the value of any house is linked to the availability of development land in the area. If land suddenly becomes available, new builders move in, and the value of the least expensive houses in the area is likely to take a dive. That’s when abandonment becomes a phenomenon, especially in areas where an aging population means that, when occupiers die, their houses are boarded up, with no incentive for anyone to improve them.