Last night I attended a debate on Green Belt policy here at Brookes, organised by the Royal Town Planning Institute and mainly, it appears, based on last autumn’s Adam Smith Institute’s research paper “The Green Noose” by Tom Papworth, who was there to defend his work in front of what at times was a hostile audience. The main opposing speaker was, I suppose, a chap from the Committee for the Pilfering of Rent in England, and, whilst we were told the choice of Oxford as a location was quite arbitrary, being a city with a Green Belt arguably (apparently – it seems bloody obvious to me) helping to squeeze Oxford’s housing to the point where it is the most expensive in the country according to some analyses of the relationship between house prices and local earnings, meant a doubly interested audience, on both sides.

green-beltsBut I don’t want to rehearse all the arguments from last night, just reflect on something that struck me about the whole affair. Talk is cheap. But planning is expensive. Expensive for its victims. Like, for instance, me and the other 51% of Oxford who rent. Ten years ago, almost exactly, I sat in an Oxford Linacre Lecture by Richard (Lord) Best, then of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who was discussing a similar question of “do we need to concrete over England to house everyone?”

As Tom reiterated last night, the answer is unequivocally no. Only less than 10% of Britain is actually developed land, and only half of that is housing. It would take less than 1% of the remainder to provide housing supply for a generation. Land is not in short supply. Understanding the problem from the perspective of its victims clearly is.

But here’s the rub, there was a lot of mithering last night about how the planning process has lost its teeth over the past twenty years and, by implication, that this is really the cause of our housing crisis – not enough planning. Well, in the decade between Richard Best’s lecture and last night, whatever the powers of planners, the problem has ONLY got worse. And, whilst people were suggesting that it was changes from the late 90s onward that have really declawed planning, it is clear that it has been failing for a lot longer than that.

When I was on the planning committee at Oxford City Council we were finalising that particular version of the local plan. Supposed to start in 1998 it was not ratified till the early noughties and was then soon overtaken by the new planning regime of Core Strategy and so on introduced by the Blair government. It already highlighted a severe shortage of housing and extreme difficulties in finding suitable land to allocate to future building. That’s AT LEAST two decades in which the problem has been acute and getting worse.

On a personal, individual level, that means that someone unable to afford a home to buy ten years ago when I sat in Best’s lecture, will have paid something like £30,000 in income tax and national insurance over that period if they’ve been around median earnings, but pissed at least £100,000 up the wall into someone else’s retirement pot in ever increasing rent (for one bedroom, in Oxford). The colleague at the desk next to them, who did manage to buy a house ten years ago, will have, similarly, paid over about £30k in income based taxes, but will have seen the amenities and services those taxes pay for increase their land value by well over the £100k “lost” by tenants.

Can you see now how divisive this is?

It is robbery. Plain and simple. The protection of landed wealth by existing owners and amenity groups, usually made up of erudite, well to do, well housed, and largely well meaning folk, at the expense of the dispossessed and disenfranchised.

And just look at that expense – that difference, between £100k poured into a landlord’s SIPP and £100k gained at least in the paper value of an owner occupier’s property, £200k and more, is approaching the total lifetime estimated benefit of having a university education (the lifetime “graduate premium”). In a decade. And today’s graduates are just as unlikely to be able to afford a home as many less well educated and in less rewarding jobs. And the suffering is greatest amongst the already less well off and dispossessed. It is they that the law of rent says end up at subsistence levels because of rent.

And governments of every persuasion seem, on the basis of that ten years between Best’s lecture and last night, to have made matters worse, made more people suffer, and some people very wealthy indeed. Do you really believe that’s how it should work? That “democracy” such as it is, intended to be government by and for the people, should preside over such a widening gulf?

The Town and Country Planning Act of 1948 lost what teeth it really had in 1950 when the incoming Tory government got rid of the “betterment levy” – a minuscule form of land tax that was to capture the uplift in the value of land given planning permission for public use (often to pay for the externalities of a development in the form of upgraded or new infrastructure). And it has been failing ever since.

What amounts to a decade long talking shop is costing real people billions, trillions, in added costs of living. All those comfortably housed and comfortable off there last night would do well to reflect on the divide they are contributing to by opposing homes for people (and yes, I know, some of them would say they are not, just on Green Belt, but in effect, in Oxfordshire at least, they are).

All I really wanted to do last night was scream “stop bloody talking about it, you are killing us”.

Planning: All poverty, no progress
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