Planning Protests: the contentious politics of housing supply

In a new book to be published in 2023 by Routledge, I address the growth of community opposition to deregulated housing development. I situate this opposition in a landscape of contentious politics, as a broad-based social movement with its origins in what was once called the town planning movement and in inclusive notions of the public interest in the regulation of property development.  If you would like to help with this project, I am looking for digital photographs of community planning protests to be included in the book. If you have high quality images that you would like to see included please contact me at Please include written permission for the reproduction of the images. Read on for an introduction to the book…

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, and the collapse of investment assets secured on homeowner debt, housing supply has become the new locus of contentious politics. Private equity and investor capital have transformed rental housing into a new asset class, secured risk-insured yields in buy to leave developments and captured inflated land values through urban clearances and state-facilitated gentrification (Rolnik, 2019). A growing crisis of affordability has followed in the wake as supplies of municipal and cost-rental housing are privatised or demolished. The inequities of housing distribution are blamed by nation states and real estate interests on a crisis of under-supply, and this has justified the deregulation of property markets to facilitate further development in land and housing (Gallent, 2019). Social movements have swept across the urban centres of the Global North and South in response. One of the most internationally significant is a popular campaign for the regulation of property development rights and the defense of land use planning protections. 

This community movement is a political force to be reckoned with in urban and rural planning. It is organised around networks of voluntary groups that are actively concerned with, and seek to inform themselves about land use matters.  Many of these amenity groups are networked by national organisations and have their origins in the voluntary town planning movement of the early 20th century (Pendlebury & Hewitt, 2018). These groups monitor and respond to planning applications, encourage public engagement in planning decisions, report breaches of planning conditions, and seek representation in plan-making and public examinations. They may employ planning consultants and brief legal representation to enable them to take effective part in the public examination of local plans. They also deploy more contentious methods including non-violent direct action in protests, rallies and demonstrations. Many of the amenity groups have titles that link their place name with words like ‘save’, ‘stop’, ‘hands off’ or ‘keep it green’. 

In writing about this movement I aim to challenge prejudices and debunk myths. Public opposition to housebuilding is presented as a policy problem and particularly a problem for democratic engagement. The wrong public is participating and has too much influence, so the story goes. But the reason why public objections to housebuilding have emerged as a policy problem is precisely because they challenge the prevailing liberalised model of development planning. Housing is a commodity to be supplied at the highest price possible and under conditions in which its development will yield the best possible value for land.  To oppose housebuilding under these terms is not necessarily to object to the provision of new homes but to reject the commodification of a basic need and the treatment of land and the environment as a financial asset. Opposition to housebuilding emerges in the gap between housing as a commodity and home as a human right and a social need. It calls attention to the relentless expansion of investment capital into land and housing markets and to the failure of statutory planning policies to adequately regulate private property rights and to balance the costs and benefits of development.

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The Eviction of the Public

Plenary presentation by Quintin Bradley at the Housing Studies Association Conference, 11 November 2020

In this plenary session I want to talk about the eviction of specific, informed and concerned publics from public services.

In this talk, I identify three modalities or ways the public has been represented in town planning and housing studies.

Hostility to informed and concerned publics is clearly visible in the Planning White Paper published in England this summer with its promise to close down opportunities for debate and remove democratic oversight.

I argue that the antagonism which now greets an informed and concerned public is the latest episode in a politics of banishment or the eviction of the public from public services and from the collective political projects of human need. 

Our public services were created by self-determined publics, mobilised by their concern. They waged rent strike to create council housing, and mass trespass to create town planning. 

The Skeffington report in 1969 is commonly regarded as the beginning of public participation in English planning. 

But I argue it marked the beginning of the end of planning as a public service. Skeffington was an unusual government report in that it was illustrated. We know from its line drawings that Skeffington had a very clear idea of the public that was to be disciplined by participation. 

This illustrated public was organised and collective. It was the local amenity groups and civic societies networked nationally by the CPRE and what was then the Civic Trust, now Civic Voice.  These two organisations joined a broad public mobilisation of social movements that created the town and country planning system in its post-war institutional framework. They created its most popular institutions: Green Belt, National Parks, Conservation and Heritage. This public established the values and aims of planning as a public service. 

The modality of the public advanced in the Skeffington Report presupposed that planning was not a public service but a statutory one. Skeffington codified the engagement of the public in participation. It channelled public engagement into a ritual in which the issues, the outcomes and the legitimacy of the public themselves was to be defined by the producers. It established a pathology of participation in which the civic actors who had been the architects of planning were denounced as the ‘usual suspects’ and replaced by the imaginary of an innocent public that was open to instruction, yet continually hard to reach. 

What does it take to transform the values of a public service, to turn it around so that it serves the private extraction of value? We can point to privatisation and outsourcing and to the introduction of market devices: tools of calculation drawn from financial services industry.  But the essential first step in the marketisation of a public service like town planning is the containment and dissolution of the organised publics who fought for and upheld its values.

Planning in England now operates within the presumption that private development is in the public interest. The political economies of property and land speculation are regarded as matters of national security to be protected from local democratic challenge.  The most recent modality of the public in planning is as a political threat that requires intervention and sovereign punishment. An imaginary of environmental, animal rights and now climate activism movements as extremists and potential terrorists is waiting to be imported into urban and rural planning. 

Earlier this year I interviewed over 500 members of amenity groups in England who were trying to navigate the contortions of participation in planning. They reported few successes in changing planning outcomes. And their transformation into antagonists rather than stakeholders felt unmerited.  Electoral mobilisations that unseated councillors and saw campaigners voted into local government failed to make any difference to national planning policy. Technologies of participation that claim to recognise difference and seek to enfranchise the disadvantaged cannot even be navigated by citizens who are concerned and informed. 

The politics of banishment starts with the denigration of self-determined publics, of collectives mobilised around issues.  But it expands to define a housing market characterised by foreclosure, eviction and dispossession; in which whole populations are treated as disposable, as un-people. The dissolution of collective publics is the first stage in a continuum of eviction, of banishment, from land, from property, from home and finally from personhood.

In a 2017 article called The Grassroots of Planning,  Ananya Roy reflects on the construction of democratic citizenship that has emerged from informal settlements and social movements in the Global South.  She describes an insurgent citizenship that has planned and built whole neighbourhoods, fought for and established basic infrastructure, devised and provided, with their own hands, collective services. These insurgencies are constructions of the public in the act of creation of democratic public services.  

Public services are the creation and the concern of collective publics. And the public cannot be so easily disentangled.

To be public is to assert personhood. The issues that gave rise to housing and planning as public services continue to mobilise insurgent publics who claim the right to housing, who make a claim on human rights, on the rights of personhood. Who remind us of shared humanity, and the concept of shared needs, and a shared concern for the planning and delivery of those needs.  

To be public is to care; to be concerned; to demonstrate humanity. It is in the agitation of renters’ unions and in the campaigns of amenity groups and civic societies that the public of housing and planning speaks today.  

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Planning for the future

The rationale for the radical shake-up of the English planning system in the Planning White Paper published this August 2020 is the assertion that planning is a constraint on the supply of land for new housing.

This assertion does not appear to be supported by the evidence. Planning is already providing more land than needed to meet the government target of 300,000 homes a year.

Last year (2019) almost 400,000 homes were given planning permission in England but only about 240,000 homes were built.

Over a 10 year period, since 2009, 2.5m homes have been given planning permission but only 1.5m homes built. There would appear to be a backlog of 1m unbuilt homes.

The development industry admits to this backlog. It acknowledges what it calls a lapse rate of on average 40% of homes that are given planning permission but never get built.

This suggests that it is not the planning system that is a constraint on housebuilding but the property industry itself.  Why is that? There are two reasons.

Firstly, landowners and property investors secure residential planning permission for land in order to increase its value.  Residential planning permission can increase the value of land by 100 times. They do not need to develop the land in order to realise this increase in value. Instead they can sell the land at a profit or use it as capital for further investments.

The process of planning reform from 2012 has fuelled an industry in land speculation, defined as the treatment of land as a financial asset rather than as a productive resource. 60 per cent of outline planning permissions are now held by non-builders, landowners, investors and site promoters who have no immediate intention to build the homes that have been approved.

The second reason lies in the poor supply responsiveness of the housebuilding industry itself – a problem identified in every government housing report.  The private housebuilding industry is an inefficient means of meeting housing need since it does not increase supply to meet demand. Instead it provides a drip-feed of homes, purposely keeping to a rate of around 60 homes per site per sales outlet, in order to balance house sales against the need to acquire and manage a pipeline of up to 9 years’ worth of housing land.

The reforms of planning that have taken place since 2012 have encouraged this situation and the proposals in the Planning White Paper will make things worse. 

Liberalising planning – that is, returning development rights to property owners – has encouraged the inefficiencies of the property industry.

The result is that is now takes twice as long to build homes as it did before 2012. 

Land for approximately 150,000 homes is taken out of production annually and sold without being developed.

And the industry now says that it will require 1m homes every year to be given planning permission if it is to achieve a build target of 300,000. 

But what other industry needs a supply chain that is 4 times its annual output ?

At a time of global pandemic when people were being told to stay home, we have a pandemic of homelessness brought about by the deregulation of planning systems.

Planning has been reduced to the mere licensing of property speculation.

But the job of planning should be to identify and meet housing needs  – that is priority housing need – the housing people need but can’t necessarily afford.

Private housebuilders cannot and do not want to meet housing need

Planning reforms like the White Paper and the extension of permitted development rights take us back to a time before planning.

A time of urban sprawl

Of inadequate housing that lacks basic amenities 

Of unplanned and unregulated property speculation

We need to return to a regulatory system that intervenes in land and property markets. One  that can bring down the price of land, capture land values for the public benefit and make housing affordable.

We need a planning system that can bring about a better quality of life for all and a more sustainable future. We need more planning, not less.

Please see my contribution to the report: The Wrong Answers to the Wrong Questions, available on the Town & Country Planning Association website:

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In support of a democratic plan-led system

A report on the findings of research with place-based groups in England engaged in planning decisions

This report provides a brief summary of the findings of my research into attitudes to development planning among members of place-based amenity groups. Over 560 participants from neighbourhood groups in all parts of England engaged in the research which took place from 2019 to 2020. 

Amenity groups monitor and respond to planning applications, encourage public engagement in planning decisions, report breaches of planning conditions, and seek representation in plan-making and public examinations. Some employ planning consultants and brief legal representation and this enables them to take effective part in the public examination of local plans. They also deploy more contentious methods including non-violent direct action through protests, rallies and demonstrations. Many of the local amenity groups have titles that link their place name with words like ‘save’, ‘stop’, ‘hands off’ or ‘keep it green’. 

A qualitative survey with 12 open-ended questions was distributed through the CPRE to a mailing list of 250 branch co-ordinators who referred it onwards to amenity groups in their region. The survey received in total 524 narrative responses; 85 per cent of respondents had commented on a planning application in the last five years, while 81 per cent were members or supporters of a local amenity or civic group. In addition, semi-structured group interviews were held with 15 amenity groups across England. These group interviews involved 43 participants. Questions for both the survey and the group interviews were designed to solicit opinion about issues of development, planning policy, and how the planning system could be improved.

Participants demonstrated broad agreement on the aims and objectives of development planning and how current policy and procedure should be changed. 

They argued for a return to the concept of social need as a system for equitable housing distribution, advocating that land should be prioritised for social and affordable housebuilding.

Local housing targets are currently geared to achieving the Government’s target of building 300,000 new homes per year. This number is not based on sound evidence and the approach is in any case overly simplistic. A number provides no indication of the type of housing needed and it can be achieved by providing more luxury housing when the actual need is for more social housing and low priced housing (Survey, North West England).

Housing need in this country seems to be conflated with demand and if all the suitable sites are used to meet demand, you’re not meeting the need. Obviously no one needs to have a second home, they might want to, they might aspire to, they might desire a second home, but it’s the meeting of people’s basic needs in terms of housing (Interview, North West England)

They felt that current planning policy with its presumption in favour of development prioritised the interests of developers and landowners. 

“The presumption in favour of sustainable development – it’s a developer free for all”  (Interview, South East England)

Speculative developers have taken over the system (Survey respondent, East England)

They want a return to a plan-led system in which the location, type, design and quality of development can be planned democratically, in which settlement locations are planned around employment opportunities and sustainable transport links, with housing need addressed through significant council house building.

Under the current system, however, they argue that there is almost no strategic planning. The location of new development is determined by the site promotion activities of landowners, developers and their agents in the expectation of financial gain from an uplift in land values.

Homes are not really planned at all. The so called planning process invites developers and land owners to suggest sites for building. These sites bear little or no relevance to need for affordable housing, transport or employment (Survey respondent, South East England)

If planners planned then they would set out to determine where houses should be built in order to make the most effective use of land, minimise transport costs, ensure infrastructure is provided.  Very little of this actually happens.  Infrastructure tends to be an afterthought after planning approval has been given (Survey respondent, South East England)

Amenity groups championed a democratic plan-led system that equitably distributed land value uplift, effectively regulated development rights and prioritised the supply of land for social need.  They argued that the public infrastructure required to service new development should be funded more equitably, with landowners and developers paying a fairer share, and it should be provided before the start of development.

Land is the one finite thing we have here; you can’t just leave it to the market. What is the problem with having a top-level national planning system that can genuinely plan? (Interview, South East England)

A cohesive town planning approach which considers housing needs/types, required infrastructure – Schools, Doctors, Leisure Centres, Shops – and high focus on ensuring adequate transport links to minimise the need for personal car use (Survey respondent, South East England)

They argued that the planning system should recognise the interrelation between people and their environment, rather than seeing the environment as secondary.  The regulation of development should take account of landscape capacity and ensure that housing and economic growth do not compromise natural resources.

The key concern of amenity groups was that property development rights should be regulated to deliver the land uses that are not traditionally best supplied by the market. They articulated support for a planning system guided by progressive aims and coherent values that redistributed economic development more evenly across the country and that addressed the looming threat of climate crisis. The desire to return to a plan-led system that can identify, map and address social need explains their rejection of planning’s current role as a licensing scheme for private development gain. 

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Survey on attitudes to housebuilding

What changes are needed to our current model of housebuilding? A new survey aims to gather the views of local residents about housing development and the planning system.

The survey is being run by Dr. Quintin Bradley, senior lecturer in planning and housing at Leeds Beckett University. He has carried out interviews with community groups and the aim of the survey is to get the views of many more people concerned about housebuilding. 

The survey asks only a small number of questions but it leaves plenty of room for people to write their views. It asks about housing targets and housing need, the allocation of housing land and the impact of development on the environment.

Quintin says: “I hope my research will contribute to a more informed public debate on our model of housing supply and distribution. My aim is to help communities to have real influence over planning decisions”. 

Please follow this link to the survey:

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Housing land speculation and the 5-year land supply

The accountancy regime used by planning authorities in England to provide a 5-year supply of housing land has encouraged land speculation and introduced perverse incentives for landowners and developers to reduce the supply of new homes.

In my new article for Urban Studies journal I argue that planning policies introduced by Conservative governments in England have encouraged house builders to trade land instead of building homes and have created a new industry in the sale of land with planning permission.

In 2019 local planning authorities awarded planning permission for almost 400,000 homes, more than twice as many as are being built. Almost 60 per cent of all residential planning permissions are now held by non-builders: site promoters, landowners and their agents, who sell the undeveloped land to capitalise on its uplift. The length of time taken to build-out sites has doubled, and the number of homes started by the speculative builders appears to have peaked at 135,000 a year. Every year approximately 150,000 homes with planning permission never get built.

You can read the full article here

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One third of all homes with planning permission never get built

At least twice as much land is provided every year for housing than homes started on site and more than 30 per cent of homes with planning permission never get built at all. 

The number of homes approved for development has been much greater than the number of houses actually started on site every year for the past decade. The gap has been growing rapidly since 2011 generating an accumulated backlog of over 800,000 permissioned homes that have yet to be built.

At least 30 per cent of these permissions will never be turned into houses, with this figure rising to around 50 per cent in London, according to research by the development consultant Lichfield.

Accusations of land-banking have been vehemently denied by the house-building industry and have not been upheld in any formal inquiry. However, the industry admits that a significant number of homes with planning permission ‘lapse’ each year. 

One of the reasons why housing sites ‘lapse’ is because landowners and site promoters take their profits from the uplift in land value without building the promised housing. Getting planning permission for housing can increase the value of land by 100-fold. Government figures suggest that agricultural land worth £21,000 a hectare rises in value to £2,000,000 once it is given residential planning permission. 

The top housebuilding companies operate across both land and housing markets and may trade sites once they have planning permission or use the profit from land to support their borrowing. 

The lack of responsiveness of the housebuilding industry has been cited as the biggest obstacle to increasing the number of homes built and tackling the increasingly severe crisis of affordability. The recent Letwin report confirmed that housebuilders average a build-out rate of only 50 homes a year per site, deliberately rationing the supply of homes in order to keep house prices buoyant.

While planning authorities have increased the number of permissions for new homes, the industry has failed to respond with any significant boost in production. Yet government continues to regard a lack of planning permission as the obstacle to housing supply. 

Planning permissions for 300,000 homes were granted by local authorities last year, continuing a long upward trend in the amount of land allocated for new housing. Meanwhile housebuilding remained steady at around 164,000 completions suggesting construction has plateaued. 

According to research by housing charity Shelter, 324,000 homes with planning permission were still unbuilt five years later.  Think tank Civitas found that 529,000 homes were still not built ten years after getting planning permission. 

National planning policies forces local planning authorities to provide more land than housebuilders require for their current rate of construction. This surplus of permissions enables developers to pick and choose sites with the highest values and to prioritise their profit margins rather than boost supply.  It provides compelling evidence that the dominance of landowners and developers in the planning system is fuelling a speculative market in land and increasing the affordability crisis in housing. 

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Is planning responsible for the housing crisis?

UK Government ministers continue to blame the planning system for the affordability crisis in housing. They are not alone. Many economists also say that planning restrictions stop house-builders from building the amount of homes we need.

In April 2019 economist Christian Hilber gave evidence to the Lords Intergenerational Fairness Committee that the main cause of excessively high house prices in England was an inflexible planning system.

In her landmark report, economist Kate Barker said that planning constraints on land supply were the main reason why supply and demand in UK house-building did not work the way market theory says it should.

Barker asked why the house-building industry is so slow to respond to price signals. The answer she gave was that house-building depends on a supply of land and land is rationed by a regulatory system (planning), not by a market process. 

Barker’s solution was that planning should behave more like a market. Planners should make more land available when house prices rise.

In her 2004 report to government Barker promoted what we might call the ‘marketisation’ of planning. She called on planners to prioritise the interests of the private market. They should give house-builders a greater choice of sites to develop.

The Barker review led to changes in planning which have seen many restrictions on land supply lifted. But this still has not brought about a substantial increase in house-building. Instead, the Raynsford Review of Planning in 2018 argued it has skewed the planning system in favour of private profit at the expense of environmental and social sustainability.

Raynsford argued that planning serves an important public purpose by regulating the supply of land. A free market in land and development creates environmental and social harm.  Planning regulates land to make sure development is sustainable, its benefits are shared equally, it enhances the environment and makes places and lives better. 

The Raynsford Review stated: “Market mechanisms alone are unable to deliver a full range of public interest outcomes when confronted with the scale of the real-world challenges facing the nation…Decisions with a lasting impact on people and places should be subject to democratic accountability that goes beyond the exercise of individual property rights”.

Planning plays (or should play) a necessary and beneficial purpose in constraining land supply. The regulation of land makes the housing market more sustainable in the long term.

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Is building more unaffordable homes the best way to make housing more affordable?

The solution to a housing crisis of affordability is – we are told – to build more homes. 

Housing economists agree, however, that we would need to build an unprecedented number of houses to have any effect on prices in the housing market as a whole. 

We would need to build more than double the number currently being built. We would need to build more than the private house-building industry has ever built before (except for a short time back in the 1960s). 

And even if we do manage to build this unprecedented number of homes, any impact on price will depend on the house-building industry transforming itself and its supply chain so that it becomes much quicker to respond to demand – more responsive, in fact, than it has been for a very long time. And even then, any change in price would need at least ten years to take effect. And prices would not fall, they would just stop rising as steeply.

Wouldn’t it be simpler and more direct to build houses that were already affordable?

And this is where it gets interesting. Because according to the economist Kate Barker, whose 2004 report for government set the pattern for everything that has come since, in order to effect prices in the housing market, you have to build market houses.

Barker did not consider the impact on market prices of building outside the market – in other words – of building council housing or social housing.

And yet, according to the housing theorist Jim Kemeny an enhanced programme of council house building would have the effect of stabilising prices in the private housing market. In his 1995 book From Public Housing to the Social Market, Jim Kemeny studied the economic effects of council housing in the UK and the European model of cost-rental – a name that describes homes built without profit and distributed on the basis of need not ability to pay. His analysis demonstrates that a mature not-for-profit housing sector has the effect of stabilising prices in the home ownership and private rented sector.

Figure 1: House building & house prices 1946-2010

Figure 1 is a well-known graph that illustrates what happened to the total supply of new housing when the UK council house-building programme was stopped in the 1980s. Up until the 1970s the country was building at least 100,000 really affordable homes – on top of the usual number built by the private sector – and distributing them on the basis of need.

What figure 1 also shows – and this point is not often made – is that when we were building around 100,000 council homes a year in the UK, the price of housing in the private sector remained constant and relatively low.

It was only when we stopped building mass council housing, that the price of market housing took off on its inflationary ascent and went into its cycles of boom and bust.

I don’t want to get too nostalgic here but I think we need to be clear that the housing crisis we face is one of affordability.

And when economists say housing is unaffordable because we haven’t been building enough houses – they mean market housing.

But housing is unaffordable because we haven’t been building enough affordable housing. We have not been building enough homes to meet housing need, and we have failed to ensure that everyone who needed a home got one at an affordable price. 

The solution to the housing crisis is not building more private market homes. The solution is to build and distribute homes more fairly.

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Why do we keep saying there is a housing shortage?

The real housing crisis is an affordability crisis, so why do we keep saying there is a housing shortage?

When we talk about a housing crisis, we always talk about a crisis of under-supply. We all know the mantra: we need to build more homes.

We know the argument – we are not building enough homes to keep up with household growth and house-building is at its lowest point since before the First World War (and we started saying that back in the 1990s, so this has been going on for a while).

But there is another side to this story. There are more than enough homes to go around, according to Census data, and enough surplus housing space to give everyone in the country their own bedroom, and we now seem to be building more homes than the official projections suggest are actually needed.

Why did we ever think the problem was an under-supply of new homes?

The answer is that a lack of supply is the stock answer of classical economists to problems of affordability.

Our current fetish with housing numbers dates back to the report commissioned by government by economist Kate Barker in 2004. 

Barker pointed to rising house prices and a worsening crisis of affordability. She argued that this was evidence of a failure of supply and demand in the housing market. She diagnosed the problem as an under-supply of housing.

What was Barker’s evidence of under-supply? It was the fact that housing was getting unaffordable. 

So, Kate Barker’s report starts with what seems to me to be a category error – the problem was seen as an effect. In the classical liberal economic tradition in an ideal market supply increases to meet demand and prices fall. So, if prices are too high, the problem must be too little supply.

But there are many other causes of a crisis of affordability in housing – not just a shortage of supply. Writing in 2016, housing academic Nick Gallent points to a problem with the classical view of supply and demand in the housing market.

Gallent argues that demand for housing and need for housing are two separate things. The market is not dysfunctional because of a lack of supply, but rather because it cannot provide housing as an investment and as a basic need at the same time. If it supplies demand for an investment asset, it needs to maintain high house prices. If it is supposed to provide for housing need, it needs to lower prices, but then it can’t meet demand.

We used to have a solution for this. It was called council housing.

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