Will building more homes solve the housing crisis?

Do we have a housing crisis of under-supply, or a crisis of affordability?

We seem to be confusing the two things.

The current government target of building 300,000 new homes a year depends on the assumption that increasing supply will make housing more affordable.

But what is the evidence for that?

In her review of housing supply in 2004, economist Kate Barker argued that doubling the production of private-sector house building would reduce the rate at which house prices increase. However, to bring about a real fall in house prices would require so many homes to be built it would be ‘undesirable and unachievable’.

New build is only around 1 per cent of the existing housing stock so Barker explained that any change in house prices would be very slow and require very large increases in construction. If rates of private house-building were doubled, an additional 5000 households a year would be ‘priced-in’ to homeownership .

But Kate Barker explained that there would be no effect on house prices at all unless the house-building industry became more responsive to changes in demand. It was the weak response of house building to increases in demand that Barker was asked by government to investigate.

The operation of supply and demand is measured by something economists call ‘supply elasticity’. The UK housing market is relatively unresponsive to demand, and it has an elasticity of supply rating of less than 1. 

Only if the house-building industry became much faster to respond to demand – if its elasticity of supply went up from 1 to 10 – would building more homes have any impact on house prices. And the effect on house prices would not be felt until after 10 years, when they would finally start to slow.

Barker took her figures from a report by housing economist Geoffrey Meen in 1998. Meen added that the UK housebuilding industry had never achieved the necessary levels of responsiveness. He concluded that: ‘there is no necessary reason why any increase in housing demand should be met with a corresponding increase in supply.’ Instead, he expected to see any increase in house building lead to an increase in prices to ‘choke-off excess demand’.

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The worst vested interest?

In February 2019 the Secretary to the UK Treasury, Liz Truss MP, one of the contenders to replace Theresa May as Prime Minister, described communities objecting to housebuilding as ‘the worst vested interest we’ve got’. Communities resisting development, she said were the main obstacle to the on-going project to liberalise and deregulate land use planning. 

The portrayal of community engagement and democratic participation in planning as an ‘obstruction’ or ‘delay’ is a common theme for a global liberal project that regards planning as an enemy of enterprise. Development rights were nationalised in the UK in 1947 and the planning system remains the last bulwark against free market forces and is therefore constantly under assault.  

What was unusual in this speech, was that Liz Truss, MP, presented communities who oppose the private speculative house building industry as the most committed supporters of planning, and of the nationalisation of development rights.

The portrayal of communities resisting development as pro-planning runs contrary to forty years of NIMBY folklore which has portrayed them as selfish and irrational in contrast to the rationality of planning and development.

In its first appearance in published research, the acronym NIMBY signalled the irrationality of objectors who acknowledged the need for development but opposed its location in their back yard. The medicalisation of community opposition into a NIMBY syndrome followed, suggesting that opposition to development was a pathological response to change.

The confabulation of research is evident in North America where the NIMBY literature quickly merged with the studies of the exclusionary effects of zoning in US suburbs, in which homeowner associations were identified as culpable in the promotion of racial segregation. The literature found a receptive hearing in the Australian suburbs where it was used to frame opposition to densification as a barrier to affordable housing development. The same tropes coloured an origins tale of UK planning where affluent rural homeowners were depicted as inequitably restricting urban housing need.

The focus of the NIMBY literature was on the hidden motives behind objections to development. The assumption was that public concerns over the environmental costs and negative impact of development could be discounted on the grounds that they disguised private selfish interests.

In financialised housing markets, interest in maintaining the value of the private home is not peculiar to individual home owners and is encouraged in policy discourse as rational action. The initial investment of homeowners comes under threat from new rounds of investment intended to capture the uplift in value created by home-makers. The possession of a material interest in an issue such as new housebuilding does not invalidate the claim to participate in planning decisions, nor does it preclude the commitment to what might be described as more principled objections, for instance on environmental grounds. Material attachments are the stuff of democracy. People participate in the democratic process because they are adversely affected by issues and care about the outcome. Again, it is worth noting that the NIMBY epithet is only applied to homeowners who are invested in the use value as well as the exchange value of housing: in place as well as property. The NIMBY caricature is never applied to buy-to-rent landlords, or those letting their second homes on Air B&B whose capital is rootless and for whom property is an investment but not a home.  

The most bizarre aspect of the NIMBY literature is its presentation of single-family homeowners as the only promoters of private property rights in the planning system. The role of landowners and developers is signally absent in the NIMBY literature. Development is presented as a public good, while the public are portrayed as representing only private concerns.

My argument in this post is that Liz Truss is right! There are particularly strong connections between communities objecting to deregulated development and those promoting an effective planning system. I would go further to say that communities objecting to development are among the last remaining defenders of an interventionist planning system. 

These campaign groups can be more accurately described as pro-planning rather than anti-development. They understand that planning is not merely a system for licensing free market development. Planning is about public ownership of development rights and about capturing the value created by development for the good of the public as a whole, and not solely for private interests. 

Opposition to housing development points to the irrationality of contemporary planning for housing:

  • The fact that in some places most new homes are just converted from office blocks without the need for planning permission, with families housed on industrial estates, without play areas, or even pedestrian walkways
  • The fact that housing targets now bear no relation to housing need and that almost all new housing goes to feed a bottomless demand for investment rather than for a place to call home 
  • And that protected environments are being allocated for housing, not because more land is needed, but because house-builders are able to play the system to get access to the highest value land.

Against this background, communities resisting unregulated development champion democracy in planning. They argue not only that decisions on development should be debated and decided in the most democratic way, but that the outcome of those decisions, especially the value created, should be shared democratically, for the good of society.

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The use of direct democracy to decide housing site allocations in English neighbourhoods

My new paper to be published soon in Housing Studies Volume 35, Issue 3 explores the democratic practices through which housing site allocations are made in neighbourhood plans in England. “The production of a neighbourhood plan for housing site allocations … Continue reading

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Research with communities objecting to new house-building

In 2019 I am carrying out national research with groups objecting to housing development. I would like to hear from any community groups who would be interested in taking part in this research through interviews or group discussions.

For my contact details please go to: http://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/staff/dr-quintin-bradley/ or twitter @quintinbradley.

The objectives of this research programme are 1) to identify the main common elements in the objections to new house-building raised by communities; 2) to test out with communities what changes to the housing supply model would reduce this opposition; 3) to disseminate research that portrays community opposition as rational and founded on notions of public good; 4) to disseminate a critical perspective on house-building that promotes changes to the model of supply and distribution. 

The issue of community support for, or opposition to house-building continues to dominate the policy agenda. The release of new household projection figures in late 2018 raised evidential doubts over the government house-building target of 300,000 homes a year, while a new standard methodology for setting housing targets, and a new delivery test have reduced the room for local flexibility over housing supply. The policy emphasis on housing numbers has become hegemonic, but it leaves rational questions unanswered over the importance of affordability, housing type or design standards. In this context the continuing use in academic and practitioner circles of the term NIMBY to denigrate all opposition to an agenda of increasing supply is unhelpful. There is a policy gap in the discourse on housing supply, and a need to provide research that promotes a view of communities as rational in their approach to house-building, and that prioritises questions about the mode of housing supply, and its relation to housing need.

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Green Belt – a capacity to engage

Green Belt is an environmental designation internationally adopted by spatial planning regimes, and famously associated with the arousal of passionately loyal identification. The passions aroused by Green Belt are often disparaged by the planning profession, but the capacity to arouse public concern is a political accomplishment and one essential to the organisation of democracy.

The practices of town planning articulate public concern for matters of heritage, conservation, and sustainability – among many other issues – and they create objects and settings, the listed buildings, the national parks, the plans and development regulations that organise and demonstrate that concern. These settings become the focus for public engagement; as material things they participate in the organisation of political publics and what Metzger (2013a: 783) called ‘their collective becoming’, or public identification with the spaces of political governance.

This paper investigates the ‘powers of engagement’ (Marres, 2012: 106) invested in Green Belt and explores the work done to engage publics in political debate and to orient them towards the settings of democratic governance. It seeks to contribute to an emerging literature on material participation that asks how non-human entities can be understood to organise and mobilise publics. The paper presents a case study of the performative agency of Green Belt in mobilising publics around a new regional tier of government in North West England, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. In late 2016 the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework  set out proposals to allocate Green Belt land for development to enable sub-regional economic growth. In research with the publics mobilised by this threat  the paper explores the capacity of Green Belt to inspire public engagement in the Combined Authority and in competing visions of its future. Read the full paper here:
Combined authorities and material participation the capacity of green belt

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Public support for Green Belt: common rights in countryside access and recreation

Public support for Green Belt is legendary. It is unquestionably the most popular planning policy, and perhaps the only one that is readily recognised and fiercely defended.  This passionate support is often dismissed as sentiment or as an attachment to a rural idyll. In this new paper I want to locate public support for Green Belt within a specific cultural landscape of outdoor recreation and a particular history of common rights and access campaigns. This paper contends that Green Belt in England carries notions of common rights established in struggles against the physical enclosure and privatisation of open spaces from the early 19th Century and predicated on an understanding that the policy conveys a communal interest in land and landscape. It argues that contemporary public affection for Green Belts is generated and expressed through practices of ‘commoning’ or the performance of claimed common rights of property. Drawing on extensive field research with a mass popular campaign in North West England, the paper evidences the deployment of a history of access struggles to preserve Green Belt as recreational amenity and accessible countryside. In the perception of Green Belt as a common resource and in its performance as social ‘nature’ the paper posits the continuing relevance of common rights to planning policy. It concludes that a clearer understanding of popular support for Green Belt may provide planning scholarship with new perspectives on notions of public good and the use rights of property. Read the full paper here PublicSupportforGreenBelt_full

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The use of direct democracy to decide housing site allocations in English neighbourhoods

In this new paper I want to investigate the use of direct democracy to decide the location of new housing in England as part of a suite of participatory practices known as neighbourhood planning. I am not satisfied with the way this topic has been discussed in academic and policy literature and I think there is quite another story to tell. Read the full paper here: The use of direct democracy to decide housing site allocations in English neighbourhoods_final_full

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Neighbourhood planning and the production of spatial knowledge

This paper explores the production of what counts as authoritative knowledge in neighbourhood planning in England. Its aim is to evidence the process through which the intelligibility of place was established in neighbourhood planning  and to chart the exclusions and exceptions through which spatial norms were produced.  It evidences the moderating effect that logics of economic development had in a policy dedicated to the promotion of sustainable development, and, in contrast, it analyses the new expressions of place intelligibility successfully rendered in neighbourhood planning. The paper concludes that the ability of neighbourhood planners to privilege place over logics of development points to a more inclusive and egalitarian approach to the construction of planning knowledge. The paper has been accepted for publication in Town Planning Review. Neighbourhoodplanningandtheproductionofknowledge_final

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The impact of place identity in neighbourhood plans

My latest paper to be published in Planning Theory and Practice discusses how neighbourhood plans represent a sense of place and how a convincing narrative of place impacts on policies for  housing development. It argues that neighbourhood plans invoke the subjectivities of distinctive environments and establish norms of social relations that help determine the acceptability of planning applications.The selection of specific sites for housing, the specification of the size of the development, and policies regulating the mode of delivery, its affordability and relation to local need are evaluated and rationalised in reference to a locally constructed frame of community identity.

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The new normal: is a planning orthodoxy being imposed on neighbourhood plans ?

Does it matter that three neighbourhood plans failed examination last year? With over 2000 neighbourhood plans underway and 240 now passed referendum, are these failures to be expected as the number of plans increases? Or is it, more worryingly, the case that the weight of planning orthodoxy is now being imposed on the voluntary plans of citizens, perhaps driven by the illimitable appetite of developers for legal action against neighbourhood plans? Continue reading

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