As we roll on towards next year’s General Election it has to be said that anything which increases the profile on the need to build more houses is welcomed. With that in mind, the timing of the Lyons Review, published last week, is a healthy reminder for the main parties to keep this issue top of the agenda.
Its announcement on the same day CLG issued new statistics on development activity on Green Belt land is a telling counter point. The statistics are there for one thing only; for CLG to defend accusations that development creep is reducing Green Belt protection. As Tim Taylor of Forsters rightly points out, it is a sad indictment when we would rather highlight the 13% of the country protected by Green Belt (not to mention the myriad of more tangible environmental protection zones) than the 9% of urban land that our population is packed into.
Lyons sets out a number of ideas, amongst them is the headline of seeking to deliver 200,000 homes a year by 2020. This is to be achieved through initiatives including the creation of ‘New Homes Corporations’, empowering the Planning Inspectorate to step in and act in the face of non-confirming authorities, and providing authorities with financial incentives to help deliver garden cities and other forms of growth. However, whilst the document is sufficiently well crafted to avoid accusations of being politically-sided, it nevertheless fails to highlight that delivering growth will require the comprehensive review of Green Belt land.
A key word search of the document demonstrates that whilst the Green Belt is credited with limiting urban sprawl, and is partly attributed with the rise in property values and the vaulting of growth to beyond the Green Belt, it doesn’t confirm that accommodating development in the South East of England will be contingent on one indisputable fact: it won’t happen on brownfield land, and it will require Green Belt land to be released.
Lyons seeks to address the immediate problem of housing supply – that was his brief after all. But within that limited remit, it can only be regarded as a remedial measure. It cannot address the inexorable growth of London, and the two-speed economy of the UK. It cannot reverse the fact that the majority of aspiring graduates see the success of their career path indelibly linked to London, with the exception of very limited areas of the economy. It cannot temper the fact a row of eight parking spaces in Kensington costs in excess of £200,000 on the open market, whilst a two-up-two-down terraced house in Stoke-on-Trent is yours for a quid (if you’re prepared to commit to the renovation works).
Fundamentally, our politicians need a plan, and, in this respect, town planning is only a small part of the process. What do we want the UK to be like in 50 years? Are we happy for London to dominate at all costs? Do we have a plan for Manchester that is complementary, and not a replication, of what Birmingham wants to be? Are we willing to introduce tax breaks to makes it compelling for businesses to locate in Cardiff and not London? Are there parts of the Country where we are willing to focus the necessary expansion of power plants and heavy infrastructure to the benefit of the Country as a whole?
The absence of a National Plan puts almost blind reliance on local authorities voluntarily delivering local initiatives and actions, which that when patched together creates a national framework. That is akin to the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s asking general managers to define their store plans and to hope, when combined, that it provides a corporate business plan covering everything from supply chains to product lines, to branding.
Even with a National Plan, it would take decades to temper the giant-sized behemoth of London with productive – rather than defensive – proposals for other cities and regions. In the interim, we are going to have to be pragmatic and put growth where the market craves, namely the South East of England. But in the long term, a National Plan would provide genuine alternatives for businesses, investors, and, most importantly, individuals as to where they work and live.