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Small housing for a big island

by Brian Waters AJ 8 December 2005

Britain builds too many small homes –_ two bedroom flats – and not nearly enough family houses, the annual shortage of three-bedroom homes being put at 350,000.* If that were not enough, our dwellings are sub-standard by international comparison. The Policy Exchange has published two papers** which look at the data and question the causes.
They find that Britain’s newly-built houses are only 76 m2 on average – a far cry from the 109 m2 in Germany, 116 m2 in the Netherlands or 137 m2 in Denmark. Britain’s dwelling stock is also comparatively old, with 38.5 per cent of all dwellings built before 1945. In Italy, Germany and Austria this share is below 30 per cent, and in Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Finland it is even below 20 per cent. But while these figures suggest that the British dwelling stock is of rather poor quality on average, house price inflation over the past three decades has nowhere been stronger than in the UK: UK property prices have more than tripled.
It seems the rest of the developed world enjoys living in modern, spacious and affordable accommodation while we are “living in houses in which single-glazing windows moving against each other can hardly be cleaned and hot and cold water runs from two separate taps” – a caricature of British housing published recently in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
Writing in Planning in London***, Policy Exhchange fellow Dr Oliver Hartwich says it is the planning system which has made it possible first to control and then effectively to restrain the housing supply. However, a planning system that produces such poor quality housing could only persist over time because it was justified on the grounds of some public interest arguments. “What I mean is this: the British have been led to believe that they are living on an overcrowded island, that the countryside has almost disappeared under concrete and that high-density living, building on brown and protecting green fields were absolutely necessary to save the country from becoming one big, unhealthy and unsustainable megalopolis. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.”
“We carefully went through all of these popular myths and debunked them one by one. To give only a few examples: Britain – an overcrowded country? Wrong: Only around eight per cent of the country is in fact urbanised. The South East – the most urban part of Britain? Think again: The degree of urbanisation is much higher in the North West. Saving greenfields to help the environment? Not true: Plants and animals thrive in low-density residential areas. Agriculture – necessary to feed the country? An erroneous belief: Britain uses more of its land for agriculture than the European average, and this is heavily subsidised.” he says.
The researchers come to much the same conclusion as Kate Barker, author of HM Treasury’s report on the topic. “The cause is an effective coalition of people with a ‘NIMBY’ attitude and the politicians who depend on their support. Thus, the planning system has become an effective tool for preventing development. It is no wonder that initiatives to increase building only come from central government – Whitehall is usually too far away to be confronted with protests against specific local developments.”
So how can this planning gridlock be broken? To see if other countries are more successful in delivering bigger, better and cheaper homes Dr Hartwich travelled to Germany, Switzerland, Ireland and Australia. The results of this comparative research can be found in their second publication. Out of the four countries examined, Ireland and Australia derive their planning systems from the British model. Unsurprisingly, some of the housing problems in these two countries bear a strong resemblance to the British situation, with rising prices and frustrated first-time buyers. “It was quite surprising, even ironic, to see that a country as vast as Australia has nevertheless managed to create a land supply problem through land-use planning”.
“Germany and Switzerland, in contrast, both operate a localised zoning system under which local planners and politicians are directly confronted with the effects of their decisions. Local politicians know that their budgets largely depend on attracting new residents, and planning policy thus has an important influence on their budgets. This forces local politicians to engage in competition literally to make their cities ‘attractive’ – meaning both pleasant places to live and places that draw more inhabitants”, he concludes.
If this is the key to their success – a localised and incentivised system of competition in planning – then it should not be difficult to figure out what the lessons for Britain should be.
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* RICS five year housing review
** Unaffordable Housing–Fables and Myths; Bigger, Better, Faster, More: www.policyexchange.org.uk
** * www.planninginlondon.com

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen partnership, see www.bwcp.co.uk