The Lyons Review

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.

Mansion Tax – Coming to a Town Near You…

In a blatant bit of electioneering, Eric Pickles and Brandon Lewis have this week announced new guidance to reinforce the protection afforded to Green Belt land.  I say new guidance; what I really mean is that they haven’t said anything new at all, or certainly nothing that hasn’t been self-evident for the best part of a year, being that housing need is not going to win a planning permission this side of the General Election – at least where the Secretary of State is concerned.

I won’t be the only one marvelling at the black humour of the champion of Localism issuing diktats from Whitehall to local authorities on how to write their development plans and determine planning applications.  They can do whatever they like, just as long as it absolutely meets the objectives of the Conservative party manifesto for the foreseeable future.  Presumably, once the Election is out of the way, we can recover a semblance of common sense – albeit how much blood is left on the carpet from upturned local plans and perfectly good residential development proposals refused for political reasons, remains to be seen.

So we can look forward to an ever increasing simmering of house prices in London and the South East in particular, pushing more and more properties to the precipice of the Mansion Tax threshold, as proposed by the other main parties.

It’s not my intention to get into a political debate about Mansion Tax – I’m simply being philosophical.  Successive Governments make weak decisions about addressing housing need.  The demand on the limited stock of accommodation grows exponentially.  The solution?  Penalise the owners of the limited supply of housing.

Labour and Liberals love to espouse the unjustness of the owner of a £50m property paying the same Council tax as the owner of a £500,000 property, but they are in the minority.  The reality is that there are now an awful lot of people in London and the South East that are puzzled to find their main asset worth in excess of £1m, which has hurtled in value over the last five or ten years, and so, if supply doesn’t increase dramatically, could find themselves lumbered with a Mansion Tax (which is a national tax of course – not local) within the lifetime of the next Government.  They can’t control the huge boom in population in London.  They haven’t been offered a national plan to redress the imbalance of London and the South East.  They don’t dictate housing delivery.  The don’t devise inward investment strategies for other parts of the country which might attract jobs, and therefore population dispersal to other regions.

This whole issue seems a million miles away from the progressive debate that took place during the Scottish referendum, where all sectors of the community – not just Scottish – felt empowered to have their say (and obviously in the case of those eligible, to vote in record numbers).  A Mansion Tax is a sticking plaster over a gaping wound that would penalise, in the main, the fortunate but silent majority who now find themselves owning homes, the value of which they could never have dreamt of in their wildest dreams, could certainly never afford to buy now, and do not have cash piles stashed away to pay an arbitrary tax.  The ‘have-nots’ have rapidly decreasing prospects of getting on the housing ladder, and are being falsely led into resenting the ‘haves’, when their outrage should be focused on the inability of the main parties to work together to de-politicise the housing crisis.

The bleak reality is that no party is proposing any kind of solution.  Its utterly depressing.