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13/12/2016

No one comes out a winner in the blame game

Words:

The housing crisis is too important for planners, developers and politicians to get caught up in blaming each other, says Chris Shepley

It has been a feature of my planning life that the blame for many of society’s problems has been laid at our doors. I’ve argued that we should receive a ‘carrying the can’ bonus, but this has never found favour with the powers that be.

For years it has been claimed that it has been our recalcitrance, our negativity, our incompetence that has stopped this great country building sufficient housing. But the blame is now pointing elsewhere, some of the facts of the matter having seeped through to those in power. The house building industry itself is now the prime target. (Well, they started it).

A study by Civitas indicated that permission had been granted for 2,035,835 houses between 2006 and 2015, but that only 1,261,350 starts had been recorded in government statistics during the same period. A pretty big gap, even allowing for generous margins of error, and one that Civitas says has been getting bigger. In 2016 is says there were 261,644 homes permitted but only 139,680 recorded starts.

No doubt we shall see a Brexit-style repudiation of the statistics, and a fashionable dismissal of ‘experts’. But ministers seem convinced, and a chap called Gavin Barwell, who’s the minister and seems nice, says he wants to crack down on developers who have a “habit of putting in planning applications, getting permission, getting uplift in their land value and then not doing anything”.

Sajid Javid, who’s the actual secretary of state, has quoted similar figures and made similar remarks. “… my message is very clear: it’s time to get building. The big developers must release their stranglehold on supply. Time to stop sitting on land banks, delaying build-out: the homebuyers must come first.”

"Where does this blame culture get us? Clearly having a go at the planning system has not worked"

He went further and seemed to blame the government for at least part of the problem – something many of us have been doing for some time. He said that despite the magnificence of Sir Eric Pickles, the administration had not done enough. Which is welcome, though the various recipes he put forward to rectify the situation seemed inadequate and/or irrelevant to me.

Other targets for blame are available. The Farmer Report talked about the construction industry – blighted by low productivity, an ageing workforce, lack of innovation and collaboration, and non-existent research and development.

And in the House of Lords, Lord Borwick blamed newts, saying protestors had “introduced the species at sites earmarked by developers in a bid to get the work halted on environmental grounds” – a tactic foreshadowed in the seminal Grotton Revisited, which contained an ad for newtsfornimbies.co.uk (“discreetly delivered to the site just in time for the inspector’s visit”). 

Where does this blame culture get us? Clearly having a go at the planning system has not worked; years of altering the rules to satisfy the critical have had little effect on the build rate. Seeing the house builders now getting a taste of this medicine may be satisfying, but is probably based on some of the same misconceptions and misinformation that made planners such an inviting target, and is unlikely to get any more houses built. 

The housing crisis is too important for all this. People are suffering. It’s not impossible to solve but we have to move on from blame. It needs a bit of sophisticated, co-operative, and strategic thought, not just about numbers but about what kind of houses we need and can provide (sale, rent, private, public, big, small, affordable, unaffordable); who should build them (we don’t only need mass-market housing); where they should be, and how that relates to infrastructure, services, and sustainability. The data is available; we have the skills; I wish we could just be allowed to get on with it.  

Ilustration | Oivind Hovland

Chris Shepley is principal of Chris Shepley Planning and former Chief Planning Inspector

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