From the point of view of hypertension prevention I ought not to have, but for some crazy reason that currently eludes me, I found myself last evening at an event, a “panel discussion”, about the case for a “Green Belt Review” for Oxford. The panel was one councillor from beleaguered, hemmed in city council, one from the only one of the rural districts to have asked for some relaxation of the Green Belt, one senior planning consultant with a firm whose clients include some significant landowners around the city, the director of the local land preservation trust, and to set the scene a city council officer with some facts and figures on slides.

The audience was largely what you would broadly call land use professionals – many planning consultants and planning officers (it was organised by a group called the Thames Valley Young Planners’ Network), a smattering of land agents, a few developers, a few councillors, maybe a couple of civic groups and for some reason, me. I had gone along ostensibly down as Oxfordshire Community Land Trust, but obviously with wider interest from the perspective of land values, and being generally opposed to “Stalinist land use planning” as a councillor colleague used to describe it.

The council statistician chappy kicked off with some background data showing that Oxford has the worst affordability crisis in the UK, ahead of London, Brighton and Cambridge. Rents account for well over 50% of median household incomes. And with house prices nearly 15 times those same median earnings very few people will be able to afford something with last night’s 4.5 times earnings Bankster of England imposed sledgehammer.  But most telling of all is that given this is a meeting about how planning might solve our problems, it was remarkable that nobody really addressed the fact that “planning” had failed to plan for a recent increase in population and is still trying to catch up from, effectively, the Morris Motors boom years from 1930 to 1970!

You can rely on people who want votes to protect the habitats of those already present against those who would love the chance to live in nice places (or indeed anywhere).

It was also notable that much of the increase in the last two decades has been down to the success of the universities in a globally expanding market. This is a market the Centre for Cities reported a number of years ago ought to mean Oxford should grow to about a million households to take greatest advantage from its global knowledge economy reach. This is also a demographic less likely to be able to settle for the “country towns” strategy of trying to force large scale development in the county out to beyond the outer Green Belt boundary.

The failure of planning to date was highlighted also by the recently completed Strategic Housing Market Assessment which had doubled the amount of housing plots that had to be planned from now till 2031 compared with the Regional Spatial Strategy only completed a few years previously. How could planning have got things so wrong, or perhaps just so different, in four years? They, like many others enamoured of state planning, don’t seem to understand the knowledge problem highlighted so effectively by Hayek in “The Use of Knowledge in Society”.

This ineffectiveness is coupled with inefficiency and is readily apparent when you see how much effort goes into rent-seeking in the planning process. As mentioned, the speaker from the large international planning consultancy firm represents landowners that are set to gain tens of millions of pounds, just for succeeding in persuading the planning authorities to change their land from agricultural to residential use like those in the Vale of White Horse area a couple of months back.

But none of the speakers, not even the Labour councillor speaking up in favour of more building, put their finger on the inequity of it all. Yes, housing “affordability” was mentioned many times, usually with the “solution” that more subsidised housing needs to get built – subsidised by us as taxpayers, not landowners as landowners, who are the main beneficiaries of this protectionism. But even if that does happen it will barely scratch the surface of housing costs for people who fall outside the range of household incomes such subsidy is established to help. Do they not see the fundamental injustice of this? That a planner can with a stroke of a pen make a landowner immensely wealthy, and still turn round and demand you and I subsidise housing for the poorest even as we cannot afford housing for ourselves.

What they have presided over in Oxford for decades now is the shoveling of vast amounts of wealth from the poorest and least well connected to the wealthiest. This itself should be reason enough to abolish the entire edifice, councils and all, for abject failure to prevent this happening to the poorest of who they “represent”. I don’t want these mealy mouthed councillors “trying” any more. Their failure is stark, undemocratic and has exacerbated a near feudal structure to Oxford’s population – of ever more tenants dependent on the wealthy for their housing.

The system is indefensible. Not one person in the room mentioned, in all the talk of the history of Green Belts, that the idea emerged in the same political process as the Attlee government’s imposition of the Planning System which was intended to be accompanied by a Development Land Tax, to capture the increase in land values when permissions are granted for public benefit. Right now we have the antithesis of this – a system that restricts development, starving the multitude, whilst privatising the gains from rent-seeking. When the head of the preservation trust says “we need to preserve….” she seems to have no clue how difficult her sort of preservation makes it for many people just to preserve a decent quality of life and housing. Who is this “we” such people “represent”? Certainly not me. Not the thousands priced out of this part of the country.

Overall, I was left disappointed that nobody there seemed to appreciate these concerns, or at least to voice them.  There was little appetite for open discussion from the floor in any case, so it’s difficult to know whether dissenting voices, like mine, were there, but silent, but I’d bet my house (hah!) that if there were much debate, it would have been more of the same – this is the system “we” have and “we” must play the game for the greatest benefit of our clients, none of whom are the dispossessed and overcharged, but the landowners of dubious title, and their desire to profit from this human suffering.

Land use planning, it seems to me, breaches at least two articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: article 17 for property owners, prevented from doing what they want with their own property, and article 25 for the landless, unable to afford adequate housing even, in many cases, where they make a positive economic contribution that makes this city and its surroundings desirable, internationally. Last night took no steps toward mending those breaches. As Fred Harrison said recently at the ALTER conference here in Oxford, it is a primary example of how our entire political system is built on and perpetuates, for all the pro-people rhetoric from some, a culture of “cheating” from the wholesale looting of our country in feudal times to a neo-feudalism that is an affront to democracy.

Oxford Green Belt and Land Use Planning: Inefficient, Inequitable, Indefensible.
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