This article forms part of the LGA's Re-thinking local think piece series.
From a misanthropic perspective, housing is the great leveller. It provides parity of misery to all concerned. Whether they be developers seeking to navigate a byzantine process to get a shovel in the ground, priced-out generations of young people with little chance of evading rent for life, strategic planning authorities forced to write Local Plans that are effectively political death warrants come the next local elections and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government faced with a series of unattainable national targets with all the pressure this implies.
Housing is often seen through the mythic English stirring lit by William Blake’s vision ‘green and pleasant land’. In this context, the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act is currently viewed by government advisers as a too worthy and too beholden to its post war genesis. Reeking as it does of the command and control attempt to ‘rebuild Jerusalem’ by nationalising the right to develop land in pursuit of realising the wider ambitions of Clement Atlee’s ‘never again’ welfare state.
The poetic register for the realisation post war development was captured by a more elegiac tone. Philip Larkin’s stamp on post war development, ‘Going, going’ sets a wistful register with a resigned sense of inevitable loss of beauty and tradition to ‘concrete and tyres’. To replace it an ugly greed-driven sprawl of ‘split-level shopping’, the old parts retreating to ‘bleak high-risers’.
‘And that will be England gone’. And these have been the poles to which our English attachment to housing and place have been moored. Housing is either an exercise in the realms of the mythopoetic for social renewal akin to creating Eden or the wilful loss of paradise and destruction of all we hold dear, which for Larkin ‘the shadows, the meadows, the lanes, the guildhalls, the carved choirs’.
Housing fits many, many policy boxes, perhaps too conveniently. Perhaps we want too much from housing as a panacea to as many economic, environmental and social ills as we can squash under the lid. The expectations are too great, the political imperative for results for too long divorced from reality.
Even if the totemic figure of 300,000 annually anything like approximated the number of new homes needed for household formation, it can’t be achieved without harnessing the power of the local state. This is something Harold MacMillan knew and acted upon in taking his experience from wartime supply into the housing challenge Churchill set him. It’s an evident truth Sir John Armitt has recently restated as chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission.
Certainly, the English mindset to land, property and social mobility – for which we might as well dispense with the niceties and call it what it most likely is, class - has rendered housing and planning a terrifyingly knotty and complex systems failure.
The attitude may historically have been shaped by England’s unique manner of land ownership from the Norman conquest onwards, through to the modern financialisation of housing and land – via a detour through the good and bad consequences of Right To Buy and the consequent obsession with house prices as the seeming be all and end all of domestic political endeavour.
Zooming into the prosaic past, we look to the editorial exercise in concision and consolidation of more than a thousand pages of planning policy into 50 pages of clear plain English which was the Coalition’s National Planning Policy Framework. We can’t say the writing for radical disruptive change wasn’t writ on Jerusalem’s walls from Gavin Barwell’s erudite white paper from February 2017 whose very title was the candid admission that the housing market was broken.
Today’s situation probably deserves a 21st century Alexander the Great to slice clean through. Something has to give and it will most probably will, sooner than we think judging by the timescale outlined in Rishi Sunak’s summer statement. If this is indeed an opportunity for producing the outcomes we not so much want as desperately require as a nation, it must be given a chance.
But of greater immediate priority is to keep the housebuilding industry on its feet. Construction will be central to recovery but we have the early 1990s recession and 2008 financial crisis. Beyond this, now is as good a time as any to think about capturing values financial as well as human.
Planning and infrastructure must go together but infrastructure investment lags behind housing so the necessary transport and facilities are not provided for communities. While housebuilding delivery is rising, the gap between the number of units granted planning permission each year and the number of completed dwellings continues to widen.
If we are to rethink housing in relation to place, we need to boil down what housing can and should achieve to its concrete and fundamental economic and social role.
Land values have continued to rise and landowners have enjoyed massive multiples in land values following receipt of residential zoning in Local Plans. We should review the Commercial Infrastructure Levy, s.106 regulations and Land Compensation Act 1961 which are no longer fit for purpose and explore Land Value Capture on all new sites allocated in developing Local Plans which could potentially harvest an additional £4bn per year.
Let’s also reintroduce spatial planning powers across a broader geography setting out infrastructure needs and identify funding sources for delivery as the ‘Duty to Co-operate’ has failed to deliver. As Catriona Riddell has argued recently, it should be possible to achieve this using non-statutory spatial investment frameworks.
Infrastructure investment should be provided in advance of housing delivery wherever possible and strategic authorities (combined authorities or their county equivalent) be supported to forward fund or provide gap funding. And reflecting the symbiosis between prosperous communities and productive places, master developers should embrace a contract between developer, community and councils capable of instilling greater co-creation in plan design to release social value and promote placemaking.
Ultimately, by whatever route of radical planning reform or pragmatic capital investment we will have to get back from complex systems failure to human basics. Shelter from the elements is among the bottom physiological rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If we are to rethink housing in relation to place, we need to boil down what housing can and should achieve to its concrete and fundamental economic and social role. As a cornerstone of the welfare state, as a route to opportunity and prosperity and the fabric of successful and sustainable communities.
Adopting a ‘One Nation’ mindset, the Government has to face facts and let councils and housing associations invest in social and affordable housing in the red wall and beyond. In this conviction there should be calculation of a political dividend as well as courage in shaking off the dogmatic fear that social housing is building homes for people who will never vote for you.
Building a more civilised society is about creating places for people to enjoy themselves at ease, for people to live out their lives to achieve their ripest happiness and potential. Renewal means to kickstart the life-cycle of places and the people who live in them, to jolt them both into time and being.
In his Second Quartet, East Coker, T.S. Eliot sees housebuilding as an organic act in rhythm with the journey of life and the spirit of place.
‘Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane.'
If now is to be a time for living and building, let's remaster the arts of doing both well.