Alex Morton: Let the people decide on quality new housing

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WHEN it comes to housing in the UK, 1947 is the critical year because it marks our movement from a relaxed planning system and its creations – our beloved Georgian terraces, Victorian villas, village cottages – to a Soviet-style centralised planning system.

Soviet-style is no exaggeration. As far as the planning system is concerned all major changes to your property require planning bureaucrats’ approval.

The Government created the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act as part of a new Socialist utopia and command economy. Local planning officials were to run their areas as mini-states. It has been a disaster in terms of development quality and quantity. It has failed both socially and economically. Under the current system, the most important person is the planner, with developers a distant second and local people a very distant third. We want to completely reverse this order.

Local authorities use master plans that run to hundreds of pages, setting out everything from housing and density to hotel spaces in their area and bike racks required in new developments. They focus on everything yet don’t deliver what local people really want. Reform is necessary.

Yet the Government insulting Nimbys was always counter-productive. Developers putting up shoddy new homes or offices impose a cost on nearby residents in quality of life and house prices. Study after study shows it. Government knows it. Nimbys know it. We all know it. So stopping developers making a quick buck at the cost of existing residents is crucial and Government should have communicated that it “got this”, not gone out all guns blazing.

The question is: how best to ensure quality?

We believe it is to give local people a power of veto. If half of people block a change, then it shouldn’t go ahead. Meanwhile, let us have a blitz on pointless brownfield bureaucracy that currently stands in the way of redevelopment. And, on green fields, fixed compensation to those nearby should exist, rather than bungs to councils, within a system that lets local people block bad development. Local councils should focus on infrastructure, using the Government’s £1bn New Homes Bonus to pay for changes new residents need (e.g. new schools).

The National Trust’s vision is one where “trams and bikeways take people to work, while half of the city’s energy is generated from solar panels and waste processors. Surely this offers us a model for the future of our own towns and cities”.

I would prioritise building something that looks like Bath’s beautiful terraces or Richmond’s detached homes or Cotswold villages rather than generators running on human waste. And I am willing to bet you would as well.

We have seen the planners’ vision. They have rationed so little land that we build increasingly tiny box dwellings with cheap materials and no car spaces with the new homes, (once you’ve paid £50,000 for land and £30,000 for “affordable housing” as a bung to the local council there isn’t much left for design quality, and planners think allowing cars and gardens is “unsustainable”). The planners have failed over six long decades – it is time for a new approach.

The demand for housing won’t go away – 200,000 extra immigrants a year are an issue. But mostly demand is due to many older people living longer in family homes (thankfully – I love having a bed to sleep in when I see the folks). A recent report that argued we should tax the elderly out of their 25 million “extra” bedrooms is morally repulsive. It implies Government best about knows who should live where. But this is the logic of our current system. It isn’t far from rationing land under Government plans to rationing homes under Government plans.

The “green belt” does not mean all “green field”, but a large ring of land around our cities, mostly intensive farming. Places like Leeds and York that could drive forward an area cannot expand at all – even if local people approve, compensation to local people exist, and we only build on low grade farmland (and ensure that new development comes with new parks and open spaces). There simply isn’t enough brown field land for the levels of development that we need without destroying parks or gardens – valuable urban greenery.

As the National Trust would agree, the battle for planning is about the very nature of our society. A free society where sensible quality constraints are decided by local residents, or a bureaucratic master plan imposed by Government onto the people.

The coalition’s attempts to muddle through are failing – it needs to decide which side it is really on, and let the real debate begin.

• Alex Morton is a senior research fellow at independent think tank, Policy Exchange.