The land question

Last week I was at the launch of Shelter’s new report on New Civic Housebuilding. In a room full of housing developers, town planners and housing campaigners, I chose to ask a question about agricultural subsidies. Cue various nonplussed looks around the room. So why ask that question?

The answer is twofold. Firstly, the debate about housing has moved on from scapegoating the planning system as the source of all the problems. As the Government’s recent white paper says, the housing market is broken. For Shelter’s Toby Lloyd, who wrote the New Civic Housebuilding report, this is because fundamentally the UK doesn’t recognise that land is at the heart of the problem.

“We have to recognise that land has special characteristics that make the normal rules of supply and demand inoperable – and make market exchange a poor way of handling it. Land is inherently scarce, and its control is inherently political.”

Shelter’s New Civic Housebuilding proposals are critical of the speculative housebuilding model in the UK which is the consequence of this. In this model, developers pay high amounts for land in the hope of making big returns, but then seek to cut costs, including in terms of overall design and greenspace provision.

The model is also based, in the main, on managing a pipeline of developments, with developers leaving the last development and moving on to the next. Developers are less concerned with legacy – hence the issue that half of new home owners say they have experienced major problems with their properties. And there isn’t the long-term commitment to place-making. Cash strapped councils pick up the costs of managing new developments, rather than developers having a commitment to the long-term care that you might see in places like Poundbury where the Duchy of Cornwall remains involved.

Having paid a lot for the land in the first place on the basis of high prices for the homes, developers also need to avoid oversupplying the local market which could result in prices falling (cue steadily rising prices overall as developers manage their pipelines). The model also means that it’s difficult for smaller housebuilders to find affordable and available land.

What’s particularly welcome in the Shelter report is the rejection of a planning ‘free for all’ as a way to make land for building abundant. Their report says:

While it is tempting to see the scarcity of land as a direct consequence of planning, the reality is the other way around: the land-use planning system exists because land is inherently scarce, fixed, permanent and essential for any economic activity. This makes land unlike any other commodity we use. Unlike most other commodities, land cannot be created or destroyed and most of its value does not come from its quality, but from its location and use.

What would be particularly welcome, on top of this, is the recognition that land that is not built on is not unused, not empty. There is value for society in that land. This “empty” land serves many functions:

  • The UK’s wildlife is under severe strain – of 8,000 species assessed for the State of Nature 2016 report, 13% were at risk of extinction. The UK is already one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. There is a need for more space for nature, for those spaces to be bigger, better and joined up.
  • The natural capital which underpins both wildlife and farming is also under pressure, particularly soils, where pressure from farming is leading to soil compaction and loss. Resting farmland and “no-till” approaches are ways to tackle this.
  • But the UK still needs to produce food – a rising global population needs feeding, and climate change will probably mean some farmland will not be sustainable for agriculture. Already, eight of the top 10 countries the UK imports food from are drought prone.
  • And climate change also has big implications for land in the UK itself, in terms of adapting to change around our coast and managing much greater risks of flooding, which means being prepared to put land aside to manage water naturally through tree planting and schemes like the National Trust’s at Holnicote
  • The importance of access to greenspaces for recreation and for health, and of the legacy of previous generations in creating the beautiful landscapes of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

All of this means avoiding unnecessary loss of greenfield sites. The planning system has had some things to say on these issues, but the regulation of land use and management away from built up areas has been driven much more by the EU directives and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which the UK will soon be leaving.

Shelter and DCLG say the housing/land market is broken. Now the land use system and subsidies will be broken up too – the second reason for my question.

This means that these separate debates could now start to come together.

Nationally, a new land use strategy could be informed by the work of the Committee on Climate Change, and, in England, the National Infrastructure Commission and the Natural Capital Committee. Together, the three could potentially be very powerful in this area and help bridge the gap between departmental silos. They could start to provide the spatially specific guidance lacking in the National Planning Policy Framework and most National Policy Statements. (For more on this, see the very good collection of essays CPRE put out this week.)

And with farming and environmental policy returning to the UK, there’s the possibility to have a much more localised approach based on local partnerships to set objectives and provide funding, as Defra ministers hint at, and which the National Trust has supported as one of our principles for reform. As part of this, there’s a debate to be had about what role local councils and their Local Plans might have in this new world.

We know that the current planning system doesn’t work well enough for wildlife. Although councils are under a duty to promote biodiversity (NERC Act), RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts research shows most only pay lip service to it. Even in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (23% of land area), statutory management plans aren’t backed by proper funding. Bringing together policy and funding could provide a big opportunity to provide targeted investment to arrest wildlife decline.

Sir Robert Hunter, one of the founders of the National Trust wrote, in 1907, that:

The land of a country is a limited commodity, and is an ever-present factor in the production and distribution of material wealth. It must therefore be put to different uses from time to time, as a nation lives and grows; and each generation will naturally deem of supreme importance that use of land which its day demands. Absorption in the needs and views of the time will there-
fore tend to the neglect or destruction of the results of prior uses”

Recognising the importance of what we have inherited from previous generations, and what we pass on to future generations, is at the heart of the National Trust’s approach to our own land. Out of the broken housing market and end of CAP, that approach could usefully inform a new strategy for how the country uses its scarce land.

Richard Hebditch

External Affairs Director

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