Andrew Carter: The Prime Minister’s net zero promise is brave but right

22 Jul

Andrew Carter is the Chief Executive of Centre for Cities. Their new report on reaching net zero can be read here.

The Government wants the UK to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This is the right thing to do, both from an environmental perspective and from an economic one. ‘Greening’ the economy will create hundreds of thousands of new, future-proofed, higher paid jobs and help the Government on its mission build back better from the pandemic and level up our left behind cities and towns.

However, it’s an ambitious target and, while many people support the idea of reaching net zero on paper, that support drops if they think it will inconvenience their way of life or introduce a financial cost to them.

The UK’s carbon emissions from industry have fallen significantly in the last 30 years due to de-industrialisation. While this is a good thing, it means that most of our remaining emissions – more than 60 per cent – now come from homes and transport. Reducing these will inevitably mean people having to change the way they live, work and travel and, because the majority of people live and work in our largest cities and towns, most of these changes will need to happen in them.

The Government has an important role to play in this process.  The importance to net zero, of where and what type of housing gets built raises the issue of planning reform – already a sensitive topic for Conservative MPs and councillors in southern England given the party’s recent defeat in Chesham and Amersham. Despite this, changes to the way we get homes built are absolutely vital if the UK is to reach net zero by 2050.

The bureaucratic case-by-case nature of our current planning system reduces the overall number of new homes that get built and pushes development to the very outer fringes of our cities. Think about the typical new build developments – isolated detached homes hidden on the fringes of cities where the fewest people can object to them.

Homes on these types of developments account for an increasing share of new builds; nearly eight in ten new homes are houses. Unfortunately, they are also the very worst type of new home for the climate. A new house typically emits 67 per cent more carbon than a flat. This gap has widened in recent years – between 2013 and 2019 emissions from new flats fell by 18 per cent, compared with just 11 per cent for new houses.

To tackle this problem the Government needs to press ahead with its planning reforms and make it easier to build new, more energy efficient flats and terraced houses on better connected brownfield land closer to city and town centres. It will have to hold strong in the face of opposition from its own backbenchers and councillors who oppose development in their areas but doing this is essential to achieving its net zero ambitions as well as helping to solve the housing crisis.

Pushing new homes to the isolated edges of cities and towns also encourages car dependency – further increasing carbon emissions. Currently two thirds of all journeys in our largest cities and towns are made by private car. To halve emissions from these journeys, the number being made by public transport will need to rise to two thirds.

To really reduce emissions to the level that the Government needs to reach its net zero target, it will also need to take bolder action to actively disincentivise car usage in our cities. The pandemic has shown that repurposing street space given over to cars to other more productive and enjoyable uses, such as outside dining, can be done.  The Government also needs to encourage more local councils to introduce Clean Air Zones – similar to London’s ULEZ – that charge the drivers of the most polluting vehicles.

Of course, this will need to be done fairly and carefully: people still need to get around, so private car charges should be coupled with tangible improvements to cycle provision and the public transport networks to bring people faster, cheaper, and more regular bus services.

If the Government were to do this and reduce car usage by a third, carbon emissions from cities and large towns would halve. This would be a big step in reaching net zero by 2050. However, it presents the Government with a political problem: many Conservative Party activists and potential voters are pro-car so, as with planning reform, the Government risks alienating more of its traditional supporters in the pursuit of net zero.

Ultimately, despite the likely opposition, there are real benefits to the Government delivering on its commitment to net zero. Not only would it mean the UK plays a ‘Global Britain’ leadership role in the fight against climate change, it could also help the Government deliver its levelling up goals through the creation of better paid green jobs up and down the country.

The size of the prize is big. If these policies, targeted at our largest cities and towns, where the majority of people live and work, were implemented it would get the Government a quarter of the way to meeting its net zero target. However, achieving this depends on whether the Government is willing to risk straining its electoral coalition. To govern is to choose.

Andrew Carter: Devolving responsibilities to our town halls must also mean devolving money

22 Sep

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, who have published a new report Levelling Up Local Government in England

Last year, the Conservative election manifesto pledged to deliver a system of full English devolution and, as I understand it, the Government is now finalising these plans in a white paper due to be published this autumn.

Reform of England’s complicated local government structures is long overdue. There are currently 349 district, county, unitary, and combined authorities in England, as well as the Greater London Authority, many with overlapping responsibilities and competing interests.

Nottingham, for example, has nine separate councils, all with responsibilities for local planning and economic development in their part of the city. The seven district councils have responsibility for new housing, but then the two county councils are charged with delivering the transport infrastructure that new homes need. This bureaucratic arrangement makes joined-up long-term strategic decision making about Nottingham’s future much more difficult than it needs to be.

Additionally, many smaller district councils have neither the capacity nor the political will to deliver the large-scale housing and infrastructure projects needed to level up their areas, and the financial challenges of maintaining this patchwork system are increasing every year.

But the problems in English local government are about more than just function and finance. There is also a democratic deficit, with little public awareness or understanding of councils’ roles. Back in 2012, just eight per cent of people could name their local council leader, and I doubt this figure has improved much since then.

And a system in which a council leader is also a local ward councillor directly answerable to only to a tiny electorate makes it difficult for them to balance their voters’ priorities with their duty to the wider area. This means that hyper-local issues can crowd out the long-term planning and investment that an area needs.

The current system is the product of decades of political compromise and piecemeal reform, but it’s having a damaging effect on the places that the Prime Minister has promised to level up, many of which have been hit harder economically by the Covid-19 pandemic than more affluent areas. We can’t keep tinkering around the edges – only wholescale reform will work now.

First, England’s existing 349 councils should be reduced down to 69 new, larger unitary and combined authorities that mirror as much as possible the economic areas in which people live and work. This would make joined-up strategic decision-making far easier.

When I make this argument, people often stress the importance of ensuring that historic or cultural boundaries are reflected in local government. I have two points to make on this: First, civic identity is not determined by local authority boundaries; it is possible to celebrate civic identity while having council boundaries that reflect the area over which people live and work.  And second, as our proposals show, it is possible to create a new system that aligns political and economic geography whilst respecting existing historic county boundaries.

Second, the leader-and-cabinet model for local government should be scrapped and the 69 new authorities should be headed by a directly-elected political figure. In cities and large towns they should be called a mayor, in rural areas they could have a more appropriate name. But whatever they are called they should be given the mandate, powers, and resources to improve the lives of people living and in working in them.

Responsibility for key areas of the levelling up agenda such as housing delivery, infrastructure, management of public transport, and adult education provision should all be moved out of Whitehall and put in the hands of the new leaders and their authorities.  The relevant government departments – Business, Transport, Education – could then be shrunk to reflect their smaller roles and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government could be transformed into an England Office similar to the Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland Offices and, like in the devolved nations, be given responsibility for managing England’s devolution deals.

This simpler system, with a directly elected political leader, will begin to address the lack of public engagement in local politics. Though less than one in ten people nationally can name their council leader, in the Tees Valley, 40 per cent of people know the directly elected Conservative mayor, Ben Houchan, and they can name a policy achievement of his.

But it would be disingenuous to restructure local government and give it extra powers and responsibilities, without also providing it with the funding it needs to make good on these extra responsibilities. Devolving control over how local business rates, council tax, and charges are raised and spent, and giving greater discretion to councils on how they manage their budgets would give them the freedom and incentives they need to drive forward improvements in their areas – and would be a welcome relief after a decade of local government austerity.

Opponents of what I’m proposing will tell you that, despite its flaws, the current system works; and perhaps on a purely functional day-to-day level it does. But we should be asking ourselves what we want from local government in the future, particularly in light of the Covid-19 crisis.  Should it just be emptying bins and collecting library fines? Or should it be applying its deep understanding of England’s cities, towns, and counties to deliver the levelling up agenda? I would argue it’s the latter, and I hope that ministers writing the devolution white paper, agree with me.

Andrew Carter: A zoning system is needed to build the homes we need

26 Jun

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities.

You can almost guarantee that, however mad British politics gets, solving the housing crisis is never far from policy makers’ minds.

In Downing Street, Dominic Cummings and Robert Jenrick are reportedly working on a plan to ramp up homebuilding numbers as part of our recovery from the economic damage done by lockdown. I understand that very significant reforms are being suggested to Britain’s post-war planning rulebook.

Significant reforms are certainly needed. The shortage of homes, particularly for younger people who need move to our most high-demand cities and towns for work, remains one of the largest domestic challenges that we face as a country. It fuels huge social divisions: while homeownership remains a distant dream for many young people, existing homeowners – mostly older and living in urban south east England – have amassed huge fortunes in housing wealth.

Without a proper plan to fix this problem and help the younger generation, no political party should be confident about its own long-term survival. The Government must come up with a bold solution to get Britain building the homes we need, where we need them.

All too often our analysis of the housing crisis boils down to criticising the people operating around it: greedy developers; box-ticking town planners; selfish NIMBYs or frivolous millennials impulse-buying too many avocados to save for a deposit.

We say that if only these people changed their behaviours – built more, saved more, thought more about the next generation – then we wouldn’t have a housing crisis. This is a flawed view; the problem with our planning system is the system itself.

Most town planners that you speak to will quietly admit that the planning system is designed to prevent development, not permit it. Its discretionary case-by-case nature rations the development of land and chokes off the supply of new homes in the places where we need them most – close to jobs. Instead, it forces councils to build new homes where it is most politically expedient, not where they’re needed.

The consequence of this? Just four per cent of suburban neighbourhoods supplied 45 per cent of new homes in the past decade, while one in five neighbourhoods built no new homes at all. Some places have particularly poor records: in Oxford for example, no neighbourhood has built more than 25 homes a year in the last decade and as a result, many of the people drawn there for work and study struggle to afford decant housing. If this does not change our prosperity will suffer and the inequalities that we see in this country will become even more entrenched.

Clearly the bureaucratic case-by-case nature of the current planning system is a major hurdle to our ability to supply the homes that we need, where we need them. You can see alarming parallels in our own system with the ‘shortage economies’ of the former Eastern Bloc, where production was tightly controlled by the rationing of permits.

Tinkering around the edges is not enough. To solve the housing crisis and build the homes needed we should introduce a brand-new flexible zoning code, designed by the UK and devolved governments, to guide local authorities and city regions in the development of their own local plans.

Under this new code, any proposals that comply with a zone-based local plan and building regulations would automatically be granted planning permission. Areas would be zoned according to density – ranging from light residential up to industrial.

There would still be opportunities for public consultation under this model, but they would be frontloaded into the writing of the plan rather than giving the public effective sign off on every single development.

I appreciate that removing much of the public consultation element of the planning process would be a controversial move for many people, but the current system is simply too bureaucratic and unresponsive to allow for enough new homes to be built.

Many of the most common concerns that people have about development, such as aesthetics and density, could be addressed in the drafting of the local plan. So, for example, if people wanted to ensure that any new developments in their area were medium density mock-Georgian terraces they would still have the opportunity to do this under a zone-based system, but at the very beginning when the plan is developed.

A stable home need not be unaffordable, as it is for many people in Britain today. Our housing crisis is the result of a political choice that results from our tacit commitment to sustain a bureaucracy that deliberately undersupplies new homes. This fuels inequality between prosperous places and struggling one, between homeowners and their children, and between the haves and the have-nots.

We can change this with a more flexible zoned approach to development, but it requires genuine political will to make it happen. With a majority of 80 and no election on the horizon, the time is right for the Government to seize this opportunity to end the housing crisis.

Yet if it balks now and our housing crisis worsens, it will further entrench our economic and social divides and make Britain an even more unequal place.

You can read our new report ‘Planning for the Future: How flexible zoning will end the housing crisis’ here.