Bob Seely: The case against planning revolutionaries – and their flawed assumptions about how to get housing done

18 Jun

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

ConHome has kindly allowed me another article as part of the debate on planning, in relation to Henry Hill’s pieces. I am grateful for the opportunity.

Supporters of a planning “revolution” broadly argue three things. First, house prices in the South are overheated because demand far outstrips supply, so we must build more houses. Second, the North doesn’t need more housing. Third, communities should be deprived of the right to object to development.

There are three flawed assumptions in these arguments.

First, building more homes alone does not solve the affordability problem. There are many other factors, such type of home, interest rates, etc. Evidence? Despite a strong increase in supply from 2013, average house prices have continued to rise – going up 10.2 percent between March 2020 and March 2021 alone. Reversing just this most recent 12-month rise using only housing supply would take 20 years, according to one estimate.

Therefore, there are two routes of action. Either flood the South with so much housing that you force the price down, or find alternatives. The first is economically, environmentally and socially disastrous – as well as politically suicidal – and the problem with political suicides is, as Winston Churchill noted, you live to regret them. The alternative, which I support, requires finding a new approach.

Second, planning “revolutionaries” argue that the relative affordability and lower demand in the North means a) fewer homes need to be built, and b) infrastructure support for housebuilding is not needed.

However, household projections are not an indicator of housing demand but a representation of how many homes are required should current trends continue. In plain English, if you want to change things – and that’s fundamentally what Levelling Up is about – don’t base assumptions on how the current planning methodology works because it primarily reinforces historic trends and projects them into the future. It does not encourage new thinking. The current methodology, 2020 Standard Method, is better than the pre-2020 version and increases targets in Northern cities – as a result of direct ministerial intervention – but it retains the same conceptual flaw.

Third, this model deprives the North (apologies for the generalised terms) of infrastructure funding and helps suppress demand for housing, according to property experts Knight Frank, which explains why, in a valuable document, here. UK public expenditure on housing in the North is already only 17.8 per cent of the total; down from 24.5 percent in 1998-99. The Housing Infrastructure Fund allocated the equivalent of £115 per head in the East of England but only £4 per head than in Yorkshire and Humber, according to Onward research.

Put in plain English, focusing house building on the South, with the accompanying construction and support jobs, infrastructure spend and household spending, becomes self-reinforcing and self-defeating. It continues – reductio ad absurdum – with the hamster wheel of unsustainable greenfield development in the overheated South. It is, in the words of the 1980s band The Talking Heads, a Road to Nowhere.

Even the Government now admits this.

To overcome market failure, we need to throw money at brownfield clean-up and affordable homes. To see Levelling Up as an investment in rebuilding communities and regions. One option would be to tax greenfield sites and use the money for brownfield clean-up. Sadly, the chances of “pricing in” the true cost of greenfield is slim. However, planning should be environment-led.

Third, Mr Hill says communities should not be able to “stymie expansion.” To me, that sounds like an arrogant way of dealing with people. Like most conservatives, I am fed up with those who try to silence others. I never thought I’d hear it from a ConservativeHome columnist, though.

It is also self-defeating. Communities help development happen, as long as they can shape it. One initial study, albeit limited, found that areas with a neighbourhood plan saw a 10 per cent increase in housing allocations. Therefore, working with communities gets better results than treating them as the planning equivalent of a foie gras goose, with evermore housing shoved down their gullets.

However, the development that communities need is not what developers want. An example: 80 per cent of greenfield applications in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) are approved. Yet the majority of property built is “executive homes”, not first-time buyer properties. How on earth does this help first-time buyers? Answer: it doesn’t. Therefore, planning needs to be community-led.

In his previous piece, Mr Hill dismissed community champions as NIMBYs. “Seeing down” voters is dumb in a democracy, as sadly I fear many councillors and some MPs will eventually find out.

So summing up, we hope that the Planning Bill will move to a levelling-up led, community-led and environment-led agenda. We fear that it will contain the same flawed assumptions. I have made a case for change. But we need evolution, not revolution. Ripping up local democracy is a fool’s errand. Venerating a self-reinforcing methodology is a dead end.

We need to do planning better. Let’s start now. I wish ConHome readers a good weekend.

Bob Seely: The Government’s current approach to housing needs intelligent, sensitive reforms – not a complete overhaul

5 Jun

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

I always enjoy reading Henry Hill’s articles, but I take issue with his ideas on housing. I’d like to put another side to this argument, as it’s important to the future of millions of people and this Conservative government. Rather than the developers’ charter which is, we fear, what will be proposed in upcoming reforms, we need a community-led, environment-led and levelling-up lead approach to housing.

First, though, let’s agree what we agree on. Housing is a divisive and political issue. It is clear that we need to help the young without alienating the old. Henry rightly points out that, concisely put, older people tend to be homeowners and vote Tory, while younger people rent and don’t vote Tory. We agree that Tories need to be the party of the homeowners and the more we create, the better for us; all agreed.

In addition, Tory MPs are sympathetic to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State’s, aims. However, I – and others – feel Jenrick and his minsters have not made the case as to why we need to scrap the current approach, rather than intelligently and sensitively reform it. The system is, like any, imperfect, but we know its flaws and we would be more likely to achieve our aims through reform.

But over and above that, there are a series of ideas being championed that are – at best – questionable.

For example, Henry says: more and cheaper housing “scares off existing Conservative voters.” Sorry, but this is just wrong. What scares voters is not sensitively built, small-scale housing projects with a decent affordable element (for their kids) which add positively to existing communities, but environmentally destructive, unsustainable, mass-produced, large-scale, low quality, low density, car dependent, greenfield housing estates that despoil the areas they are built on. Oh, and which run a coach and horses through the Government carbon targets and environmental plans too.

Behind much supposed Government briefing is the lazy argument that we are not building. That is not true. For sure, the UK has historically struggled, but last year we built a quarter of a million properties, the best for nearly 35 years. If Boris Johnson’s target – which, by the way, is completely arbitrary – had been 250,000 rather than 300,000 homes a year, we would already be on target. The claim that we must change the system to start to build the houses we are not building is false.

Indeed, so efficient has the planning system been that the big developers are sitting on one million unused permissions. This begs the question: if the fault is with the planners or the developers who “landbank” permissions to restrict supply and inflate price? Rather than giving developers even more land and even less scrutiny, why don’t we reform the system to make sure developers keep their promises?

Henry argues: “Some of the arguments advanced by the Conservative rear-guard have indeed been breathtakingly disingenuous,” such as more housing in the South equals a betrayal of levelling-up. I see where he is going with this argument, but I don’t buy it. The purpose of levelling up is to reorientate development outside the South East. The Government has said that housing will be pump-primed with infrastructure funding; ergo: the more infrastructure projects in the South, the less in the Red Wall. One can’t spend the same money twice, all the time, as we are beginning to find out. Am I missing something?

Henry then argues, bizarrely, that “mass housebuilding isn’t part of the economic interventions needs to succeed.” That’s one hell of an assumption! So Levelling Up doesn’t need more housing? Clearly Henry hasn’t talked to the same Red Wall MPs I do. More economic development outside the South East will require more people and more homes. Again, am I missing something?

In addition, I am utterly fed up of hearing how places like the Isle of Wight must build more. For the record; in the last 50 years, the Island has increased its population by 50,000 – 50 percent. In the meantime a dozen midland and northern cities have seen absolute declines in population. Meantime, we continue to export our young people as housing is not build for Islanders!  We now face overdevelopment. This will kill our economy, much of which is visitor-dependent, and damage our quality of life. If there is one thing guaranteed to feed anger from so-called ordinary folks is the casual dismissal of concerns of overdevelopment by the Westminster commentariat.

We care about planning because we care about our environment, our people and our communities.  In a place like the Isle of Wight, that means building houses which are genuinely affordable (so yes, Council or Housing Association), in sensitive numbers, in a local style, in existing communities, for our local people and with their support. Post Covid, that also means using housing to revive our towns. Yet, the development that developers want; low density, four-bed, retiree cash purchase, has absolutely nothing to do with that vision or our need.  And a developer-led system will make that worse. A developers’ charters will not help to build for generation rent, nor will it help Islanders.

Finally, Henry warns of a NIMBY backlash, yet another slur on NIMBYs that makes me think this is not an accident but a theme being encouraged. This is foolish and bad politics. Rather than see NIMBYs as a latter day Zombie army of the planning undead, which is clearly how the debate is being tediously framed, one could instead see them by their other name: Conservative voters.

Anyone – anyone – who has dealt in any way with formulating local plans will know that many of these so-called dreaded NIMBYs have participated and often led the development of local plans that recognise the need for housing, but distinguish between the development their communities – and kids – need and the developments they don’t: faceless, greenfield estates built by developers whose approach is, literally, thoughtless.

Henry is clearly a student of politics. Implicit in plans as currently understood is the removal of a significant layer of local democracy and local input from the planning process. I hope this changes, but if not, these threaten to give Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens throughout England a rallying cry: Save local democracy from the Tories and their developer chums. We will haemorrhage council seats and support across England. Good politics? I think not.

Conservatives backbenchers are brimming with good ideas to reform intelligently the planning system; changing it to a community-led, environment-led and levelling-up approach. What we are against is dumping on our own voters and our communities to wave through a developer-led system which, many fear, threatens even more land-banking and even less scrupulousness in how developers treat or engage with communities.

Bob Seely: Lessons from the Cummings era about leadership, decentralisation, localism – and making more use of MPs

15 Nov

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

Dominic Cummings has gone, but his strengths – and weaknesses – have lessons for us, and his departure still leaves Britain’s government in need of reform.

First, in fairness to Cummings, we need creative thinkers in politics, and he was clearly is as allergic to waffle as he was to a decent dress sense. However, being a free thinker is not the same as being a leader. Every organisation needs genuinely creative thinkers like Cummings to challenge group-think and, as the cliché puts it, think outside the box.

You do not, however, put them in charge because, unless they are there to drive a single issue for a specific amount of time, chaos ensues. Iconocasts question and challenge – and sometimes trash things – but they rarely build.

Cummings’ ability to diagnosis a problem was impressive, but his ability to drive solutions was flawed.

Two Armed Forces comparisons here are useful.

Cummings saw through the chaff to a single core idea. Broadly speaking, in military theory this is called “understanding the centre of gravity”. It’s rare to see it convincingly reduced to a single idea, without the laziness of adding the ballast of supporting points. The Brexit referendum, the levelling up agenda, the need to use data better, all showed that Cummings had the ability to understand clearly a problem: revolutionaries often do.

But whilst Cummings had a rare clarity of thinking, the evidence suggests he wasn’t so good at implementing it. I wonder if that was difficulty in delegating, and a need to keep control – if so, this issue goes much wider than Cummings.

The trend towards centralisation is actively damaging Government. Add our growing culture of risk-aversion, as well as the human rights legal industry, and you have some understanding why centralised Government is slow and cumbersome and its reform is difficult.

Compare this situation with best practise decision-making in the Armed Forces – which is called “mission command”.

Mission command is the combining of centralised intent with decentralised command; it’s when generals give orders to achieve an objective, but the responsibility for delivering that intent is pushed as far down the command chain as possible.

It is the system which gives young men and woman significant responsibility very early in the military careers, and is perhaps the key reason why they stand out so much from their civilian peers. They have responsibly forced on them.

We need such a culture of decentralised responsibility in the civil service and in local government. In which central government sets a broad agenda, but the responsibility for delivering it is pushed down to the lowest possible level, with freedoms to experiment to provide the best way forward.

Revolutionaries want centralised states because they want to drive change, but this is rarely successful. In non-democracies, many centralised revolutions produced catastrophic consequences in the twentieth century. And in democracies, over-centralisation has inhibited reform and good government.

For example, Labour’s obsessions with a top-down, targets-driven culture resulted in NHS managers prioritising treatment based on targets, not need: people died as a result. Another example – Germany’s decentralised health and public health system has coped with Covid-19 much better than ours.

In Westminster, the recent sucking-away of political influence from MPs has caused friction and frustration. Disdain has been accompanied by mistakes: not a good combination. Downing Street now has a chance to reset relationship with MPs who feel marginalised over a variety of issues, including the disastrous housing algorithm and the potentially destructive planning changes. MPs need to be able to contribute to policy. Ministers need to have power and agency in their own right, not just be cyphers.

However, for successful reform to happen, we need a change of culture, not just a change of names. Second, ‘taking back control’ must now mean finding ways to decentralise decision-making from Whitehall and Westminster. Government, working with MPs must drive the intent, but decentralised command must give more power and flexibility for local leaders and local councils to drive local initiatives, the best of which we could all learn from.

Bob Seely: Ministers must revise the housing plan to give our cities the homes they need

8 Oct

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto made a clear pledge to Northern voters. We said: “We will use … historic investment to level up and connect this country, so that everyone can get a fair share of its future prosperity.”

I support levelling up 100 percent. Yet the Government’s housing targets now threaten that agenda and whilst, for the moment, it is suburban and shire Tory MPs who are speaking for their constituents and opposing these new and damaging targets, it is Red Wall and swing-seat MPs who perhaps have the most to lose.

Today, I am leading a Backbench debate in Parliament on the housing targets and the Housing and Planning White Paper. Politically, getting this policy right will help us to win the next election; getting it wrong will result in electoral pain for years, to say nothing of the wider economic, social and environmental ramifications.

If ‘levelling up’ means anything, it surely means an integrated Government plan to support infrastructure, jobs, and housing to revive the Midlands and Northern towns overlooked in recent decades, and to stop the endless drift of jobs and opportunities to the shires.

But, broadly speaking, the new housing algorithm undermines our Levelling Up pledge. It concentrates the biggest falls in housing targets in the urban North and Midlands – the very areas we pledged to level up, and the biggest increases in requirements in London and the South, where the wealth already is.

Worse, if infrastructure funding is going to follow housing, as the Government says, that means that money which Northern and Midland MPs hoped, indeed assumed, would be invested in their patches is instead going to the suburbs and shires.

In general, the case for Levelling Up is overwhelming. Just looking at population alone, whilst the population of the North East has grown by just two percent since 1961 in the South East it’s 28 percent, in North West it was seven percent and opposed to the South West’s 31 percent.

Northern cities fair even worse. Since 1961, the cities of: Newcastle, Sunderland, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Stoke, have all declined in absolute numbers, according to research from the House of Commons Library. Liverpool alone has seen an absolute population decline of over 300,000 people since 1910. The revival of Northern and Midland cities is vital both for those cities but also the suburbs and rural areas around them.

Yet the housing targets for major cities are set to decline. Targets for Liverpool and Newcastle are 48 per cent and 56 per cent lower than recent building rates. In Preston the new targets see a decline of 24 percent over the local plan for – 1,827 fewer homes over 15 years. In Doncaster the new targets see a decline of 22 percent over the local plan for a total of 4,039 fewer homes.

These are not isolated cases; there are more than 30 northern Local Planning Authorities with targets less than their local plan. This isn’t ‘build build build’, it’s ‘please don’t build, build, build’.

Whilst city targets are being lowered, the targets for suburbs and shires around them, including in the Midlands and North, will be raised substantially. So, over 15 years and compared with local plans, Manchester is expected to build less, but the suburbs and rural seats around it will be expected to build much more, and on greenfield too.

Let me give you another example. Targets for Nottingham city, where there are three Labour seats, fall by 3,700, whilst Nottinghamshire rises an additional 25,000 to 71,000 – the equivalent of 14 new small towns. Many of those major new developments will be in four historic Labour/Tory swing seats, three of which are now Tory but were Labour a decade ago. This is bad environmentally and economically, but also politically.

Whilst we don’t yet know the long-term impact, if any, of Covid, it is likely to speed-up the process of home working, which means less office space in cities and more space for housing. Therefore, the ‘rebalancing’ away from cities seems even more bizarre. So whilst these planning targets are bad for the South, they are equally damaging for the Midlands and the North.

The worst of all worlds is to hollow out our cities, urbanise our suburbs, and suburbanise the countryside, and in doing so, focus infrastructure spending away from where it is needed. I fear that this is what we may accidentally achieve, despite our good intentions.

This is not levelling up. It is concreting out. Tory shire voters will be furious. Red Wall voters will feel betrayed. This is lose/lose.

Conservative MPs need to work with Government to inject a dose of common sense to develop housing policy which supports home-owning aspiration as well as protecting and respecting the environment. The fate of our newly-elected friends in the North may, in part, depend on it.

Bob Seely: The Government must urgently re-assess its misguided housebuilding strategy

11 Sep

Bob Seely is the MP for the Isle of Wight.

Across rural shires and southern England, the Government is set to impose unachievable and damaging house-building targets which will undermine the levelling up agenda.

Environmentally, they will heap pressure on shires, whose infrastructure is already under strain. Economically, they will reinforce jobs and growth in the South when we have promised to level up the North. Politically, they will prove deeply unpopular.

This latest piece of self-induced, foot-shooting has come in the form of the new Standard Method for house-building. It accompanies the Government’s White Paper on housing, Planning for the Future. Whilst the White Paper itself will face debate and potential amendments, the new Standard Method can apparently simply be adopted. It will damage this Government.

MPs and councillors across Britain are slowly waking up to this. Ministers belatedly claim to be listening; they need to.

If ‘levelling up’ means anything, it means an integrated Government plan to support infrastructure, job creation and house building to revive the Midlands and North, especially towns overlooked in recent decades, and to stop the endless drift of jobs and people to the South. Yet this housing  strategy, as Neil O’Brien has outlined in his well-researched article, results in much lower targets in Northern cities, where we should be kickstarting revival, and significantly higher targets in rural and suburban areas.

This disjointed policy demands significant greenfield development. I know not a single Tory voter in the last election who voted for this. If this is an example of co-ordinated Government, it is a well disguised one.

The 12 biggest absolute decreases in housing targets by local planning authority on 2018/19 delivery are generally Labour controlled Midlands and northern cities and towns, with few exceptions: Salford (-59 per cent, -1882 dwellings per annum (dpa)), Birmingham (-27 per cent, -1131 dpa), Liverpool (-48 per cent, -1063 dpa), Leeds (-30 per cent, -1040 dpa), Southampton (-48 per cent, -784 dpa), Newcastle upon Tyne (-56 per cent, -978 dpa), Manchester (-30 per cent, -699 dpa), and Nottingham (-38 per cent, -559 dpa).

Instead, rural and suburban England is going to be hit. This will alienate both millions of Conservative voters and thousands of Conservative Councillors. Moreover, the withdrawal of powers from local Government suggested in the White Paper will undermine local democracy and the important role of councillors.

Council colleagues should know the following local planning authorities will all be required to more than double their 2018/19 delivery rate. This is likely to result in a tsunami of local anger from those who believed they could trust a Conservative Government not to concrete the countryside. It will fire up our political opponents and may suppress our support in future elections, beginning next May. Here is a modest selection, with hyperlinks:

Arun in Sussex (+239 per cent, +1454 dwellings per annum – dpa), Thurrock (+263 per cent, +1075 dpa), Tonbridge and Malling (+241 per cent, +1018 dpa), North Somerset (+134 per cent, +979 dpa), Teignbridge (+138 per cent, +888 dpa), Dover (+187 per cent, +833 dpa), Southend on Sea (+169 per cent, +832 dpa), Swale in Kent (+120 per cent, +809 dpa), Thanet (+246 per cent, +727 dpa), Havant (+261 per cent, +696 dpa), Isle of Wight (+199 per cent, +695 dpa), Canterbury (+162 per cent, +695 dpa),  Somerset West and Taunton (+129 per cent, +694 dpa), Blaby (+120 per cent, +626 dpa), Shepway (+134 per cent, +597 dpa), Basildon (+141 per cent, +480 dpa), Worthing (+198 per cent, +579 dpa) Sevenoaks (+222 per cent, +565 dpa), Reigate and Banstead (+104 per cent, +556 dpa), Mendip (+108 per cent, +552 dpa), Ashfield (+171 per cent, +513 dpa), Harborough (+170 per cent, +509 dpa) Waverley (+148 per cent, +499 dpa), Bromsgrove (+244 per cent, +492 dpa), Hinckley and Bosworth (+109 per cent, +464 dpa), Fenland (+114 per cent, +450 dpa), Lewes (+126 per cent, +446 dpa), Epping Forest (+104 per cent, +442 dpa), Epsom and Ewell (+266 per cent, +439 dpa), Three Rivers (+292 per cent, +438 dpa), Oxford (+262 per cent, +406 dpa), North Hertfordshire (+181 per cent, +403 dpa), Guildford (+208 per cent, +381 dpa), New Forest (+102 per cent, +395 dpa), Eastbourne (+274 per cent, +356 dpa), Cannock Chase (+146 per cent, +341 dpa), Forest of Dean (+125 per cent, +338 dpa), Rochford (+124 per cent, +324 dpa), Tandridge (+118 per cent, +289 dpa), Broxtowe (+128 per cent, +275 dpa), Hastings (+146 per cent, +269 dpa), Gosport (+461 per cent, +254 dpa), North East Derbyshire (+121 per cent, +230 dpa), Adur in Sussex (+188 per cent, +213), Oadby and Wigston (+132 per cent, +123 dpa), and Rossendale (+153 per cent, +164 dpa).

(A full list is available here.)

Take my constituency, the Isle of Wight; the proposals will see our target increased by over 50 per cent. Half the Island is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, yet we will be ordered to build more houses per year than either Portsmouth or Southampton, both cities with major infrastructure and services, and populations almost 70 per cent larger. This is just nonsense.

Why? First, our services and infrastructure are already overwhelmed with the increases we have already had. We have basically the same Victorian country lanes we had two centuries ago, minus most of our railways. Second, we are dependent on a tourism economy that crammed roads and shoe-horned housing estates will undermine. Third, our island building industry produces between 250-400 homes per year. It can’t build more. Our current targets are already unachievable. The Government might as well order the Island’s Council to develop a Moon Landing programme for all the likelihood of achieving these new targets.

It won’t help our young, either. Increasing in housebuilding do not necessarily result in increased affordability. (The FT explains why here.) Factors such as low interest rates, slow wage growth, and a need for the right type of homes are key. As with many other parts of the UK, we need one and two bed homes for residents, built in sensitive numbers in existing communities, with rent-to-buy schemes to support the young. We get three- and four-bed, generic (sorry, ‘superior’) housing in soul-destroying, low density, greenfield estates because that is what suits developers. From all sides of the political spectrum, people are fed up.

The Government’s Standard Method produces unviable, undesirable targets for swathes of rural England. What is being proposed is not levelling up, but a levelling down – from the cities to the shires. It will cost us economically, environmentally and politically. It will not help young people. It will worsen quality of life. It is not what many of our electorates voted for.