It took only hours for the wheels to start coming off. The big new announcement from the titans in the field of a bold and better future, with higher performance and better output, rapidly triggered howls of outrage. There were questions from MPs, scandal in the media, angry voters complaining.
But enough about last year’s Government announcement of a big jump in housing targets.
The still-born European Super League has many lessons for fixing housing. Just like the ESL, housing is a topic where everyone has an opinion – often a strong one. Many do not watch football, but most people have a view on a big, noisy, dusty, messy development near them, especially if it will replace pretty countryside or cause problems with parking.
It was astonishing how little preparatory work was done by the financier-owners of the super-clubs to smooth the path before launching ESL onto an unsuspecting world. No independent voices were lined up to speak up in support. No other clubs – those who might be at the top of the Premier league if the exiting clubs departed, for example – were in favour. Even the supporters of the ESL clubs themselves were often hostile. There wasn’t even time to get onto entertaining questions like whether JP Morgan’s investment was backed by even less PR-friendly hedge funds taking most of the risk. Such deals have happened.
Just like football, fixing housing takes deep preparation. Nicholas Ridley’s 1987 proposals for more homes in the countryside were watered down within two months of publication. Of over 200 schemes for new settlements proposed by 1989, a mere seven were granted planning permission. Ridley’s ideas, particularly his decision to allow the 4,800 houses on a Site of Special Scientific Interest at Foxley Wood, led to his replacement as Secretary of State by Chris Patten, who rapidly reversed that decision.
The same goes for the previous system of targets, scaled back by a Conservative Secretary of State in 2010. The rapid adjustment of last year’s housing target proposals surprised no-one who has read their history.
It is important and right to build more homes. In 1994, some 15 per cent of 25-34 year olds rented privately; today, over 40 per cent do, and many others are forced to live with their parents. We have literally gone backwards in housing for younger generations, and there is nothing inevitable about that. Other countries do far better.
But most planning reform proposals last not much longer than the ESL. There is little preparation to test whether they will be workable or durable, to build a coalition of support or to reduce the most likely opposition. The proponents are often surprised by the wave of hostility greeting their announcement. The Prime Minister might appear vaguely supportive beforehand but then come out against the scheme when the barrage from MPs becomes too great.
We, as a society, have failed to do the hard work of finding ways to add more homes, while making better places and keeping existing residents onside.
There is also a danger that, if not done carefully, planning reform can backfire badly. The Permanent Secretary at the Housing Ministry in the 1960s, Evelyn Sharp, saw a conflict ‘between “modern” planning and “reactionary” preservation’. That view caused a backlash against unpopular excesses which led to the creation of thousands of conservation areas, which have generally succeeded in protecting their historic buildings but almost completely failed in the other statutory task of ‘enhancement’ and adding more housing.
It can be done. There are plenty of examples of local people taking the lead on permitting more housing where they see the benefits for them: from parishes seeking to add homes next to their village, to the residents of the flats of Hafer Road in Wandsworth who decided to redevelop their whole building. Similar mechanisms added one third of the new housing in Tel Aviv last year. Policy Exchange’s recent Strong Suburbs report suggests one potential way forward.
The core principle of successful reforms is that they give existing communities the power to allow and share the benefits of development, of the right quality, in their area. Policies based on overpowering the local resistance to development may sound hard-headed, but they are actually thick-headed: in the long run, popular resistance always wins, and the top-down reforms fail even on their own terms.
The Government will continue to need to prepare, to experiment, and to seek to work with locals to build a durable coalition of support behind development. In New York, the famous bureaucrat Robert Moses did the opposite, with large-scale demolition for freeways and hostile urban landscapes. He has long been vilified for the damage that he did, but the point often overlooked is that he also failed to prevent the acute housing shortage in today’s New York. Building a successful housing legacy requires care, intelligence, and a keen awareness of the lessons of history.