Uks Largest Estate Agent Slam Shapps as Being More Interested in Headlines Than Housing

Mortgage Introducer

Grenville Turner, chief executive of Countrywide, said yesterday that the government had failed to fully engage with the housing industry.

It had also publicly backed schemes designed to boost the sector – before checking they would work in practice.

Turner said: “We wrote to Grant Shapps and said we sell one in ten houses in the UK, we understand you’re looking at the housing market, would you like to talk to us about our experience?

“The answer came back, no, not really. That’s the issue that we face – government not really wanting to know what the facts are.

“They want to know what their own initiatives are and try and push them forward.”

Turner said despite a dialogue with the Department for Communities and Local Government “there is this sense of grabbing headlines then trying to retrofit policy and procedure and pricing and then frankly move onto the next headline”.

He called on Shapps to sit down with the housing industry to develop innovations likely to make a practical difference.

A DCLG spokesman said Shapps had met “many organisations and held a number of summits with representatives” from the housing sector and added: “Senior officials from the department have also recently met with Countrywide and we value their input.”

GOD admits planning reform was failure – alongside poll tax and financial crisis #NPPF

Gus O’ Donnell of course, listing government policy triumphs and failures, interestingly the three failures are the poll tax, the global financial crisis and planning reform.

From his speech at the LSE 1st May

For my third failure I will use a microeconomic example; namely, the failure to agree on a planning system that achieves our desired goals. Every time there is a recession, or even of a reduction in growth below trend, there is a call for more ‘structural reforms’. Top of the list is always the planning system. It is blamed for holding back growth and development.

The problem is, in fact, a classic example of not being clear about the outcome that is desired. If it is to boost GDP, then the answer is simple: concrete over the South East. But of course that’s not what we want and that’s because you would have to be an idiot to want to maximise GDP. It’s a highly flawed measure and I am pleased that we are at last starting to think more broadly about how as a society we measure success. …The good news is that we are starting to apply the best economics to these issues. I am hopeful that the recent advances in methods of valuing environmental goods and bads will help decision makers make better choices once they are clear about what they want to achieve.

So are our politicians clear about what they are trying to achieve?  This clearly is a broadside against George Osborne. So not just any old growth – isGOD a convert to Smart Growth?

By the way he lists his 10 principles of good policy making.

Good Policymaking

As I look back on all these events over my 30 years in the Civil Service some patterns emerge of what brings success. My ten commandments of good policy making are listed below:

1)    Thou shalt be clear about the outcomes that you want to achieve

Lack of strategic clarity, of knowing the problem you are trying to solve, is a cardinal sin.

2)    Thou shalt evaluate policy as objectively as possible

You need to be clear about how you are going to determine success. It is essential to relate the success measure to the desired outcome. This may sound obvious but far too often it is not done.

3)    Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbour’s policies

Most important policies operate across departmental boundaries so be sure to have collective buy in, and ownership of, the policy. We can’t tackle the problems of an ageing society or obesity or climate change simply by operating in one department.

4)    Thou shall not assume the government has to solve every problem

In a future lecture I will talk about the 3 kinds of problems that we face.  We have models in our heads, and sometimes written down, about how we think people, companies and governments make decisions. These models are probably embarrassingly naïve. As Keynes said many of us are slaves to some defunct economist. These three types of model failures must all be addressed.

5)    Thou shalt not rush to legislate

It is a fact that all our ministers sit in either the House of Commons or the Lords which are bodies that spend a very large amount of time legislating. My experience suggests legislation should be something of a last resort to be used when all the other possibilities have been tried and found wanting.

6)   Honour the evidence and use it to make decisions

There are now lots of excellent think-tanks. We also have the internet and masses of academic research. If the policy submission doesn’t cover, for example, what works in other countries then send it back. (There is a lot to be said for covetting thy neighbour’s policies). The only proviso is to be clear that most of the time the evidence will not be clear cut. So perhaps the right answer is to generate more evidence by the use of experiments. In every case judgement is needed. That is the most valuable skill needed by ministers and their senior officials.

7)    Thou shalt be clear who is accountable for what and line up the powers and the accountabilities

If ministers want someone else to be directly accountable to parliament for a specific area then they need to cede power over that area to the ‘someone else’, having obeyed commandments (1) and (2).

8)    Thou shalt not kill the messenger

Nobody’s perfect and every organisation needs a way of providing constructive feedback to the senior decision makers. If you don’t encourage internal debate then the first time you will learn about your mistakes will be from your enemies not your friends.

9)    Thou shalt not forget that it is a privilege to serve

In government, the taxpayers pay our salaries and they deserve good value for money and to know we will always strive to follow the Codes that encapsulate our values.

10)  Thou shalt keep a sense of proportion

Or in the words of a wise, now former, minister: ‘Thank God it’s only a  game’.  For some, every bad headline is a crisis. Keep a focus on what the real impact is on people’s lives.

The Institue of Government comment on these principles here

A Readers Guide to Unwin’s Town Planning in Practice – Part 7- Roads, Treatment and Planting

Today we’ll cover chapter 7 of Raymond Unwin’s ‘ Town planning in practice; an introduction to the art of designing cities and suburbs‘  of 1909.

Uniwn here moves beyond Sitte’s focus on individual places to look at town and city wide design issues.  Sometimes urban design is criticised as architecture writ large, te same skills used to design buildings just scaled up.  Unwin here and throughout showed how he never held this big architecture view, rather it looked at the city as a whole and zoomed in looking at the design ideas needed for each structural component of town planning.

ROADS are primarily highways for traffic. They serve also a secondary purpose in affording sites for buildings. They should therefore be considered in relation to both these functions, and in the order of their relative importance. For the roads in a town to satisfy properly their primary function of highways, they must be so designed as to provide generally for easy access from any point in the town to any other. But they should provide, in addition, special facilities for the ebb and flow of particular tides of traffic, such as that from the outskirts to the centre and back again which daily takes place in most large cities, or that across the town from a residential district to a quarter occupied by works, factories, or other places of employment, or to important railway stations, harbours, and other centres of industry.

The first decade of the C20th was also the period during which ideas on traffic/transport planning began to emerge.  In 1905 we had seen the first Royal Commission on the Traffic Problems of London.  It is too easy to forget that despite few cars towns were clogged with carriages and horse drawn trailers.

Unwin was critical of the typical grid/trellis arrangement

This arrangement, while it is convenient and economical for the building blocks, is open to serious objections ; it does not provide convenient roads for passing to and from the centre, and, except when going in two directions, all traffic must travel along two sides of a triangle to get from point to point. In addition to this, the arrangement produces a monotonous effect; the street pictures are not closed, and the vistas wander off in an indefinite, vanishing perspective, often devoid of interest or variety.

Today when layouts so often replace grids with main roads and culs-de-sac is is easy to miss some of the functional problems with a pure grid.

So what of introducing diagonal streets?

In many of the more modern systems the objection to the trellis arrangement of the roads is to some extent being met by introducing diagonal streets to accommodate the traffic to and from the  centre of the town; the result produced, however, is not entirely happy. The shapes of the plots, spaces, and road junctions which are created by these radiating streets crossing the square network of roads, are not such as to produce satisfactory buildings, or beautiful open spaces.

And historic towns

we find that to a very large extent they consist of main arteries branching out from the nucleus of the town in different directions—forming, in fact, an irregular radiating system; we find, further, that there has been a general tendency for cross roads to grow out from these main roads, approximately at right angles, and that these have in many cases been diverted or curved round to meet others ; and that in the end a very irregular network of streets has grown up, the outline of which would be  more nearly represented by a spider’s web than by any other figure.

In terms of designing modern towns

Except in cases where it is desirable to keep open distant views, straight roads indefinitely prolonged without change of direction or deviation of line are not only monotonous and destructive of satisfactory street pictures, but when running parallel to the direction in which high winds are liable to blow, are objectionable as developing their force to the utmost

The traffic problem is a complicated one, and there is a rather marked difference of opinion between the German and French schools as to the best way of dealing with it…German town planners now constantly break the direction of  their cross roads partly in order to secure increased  immunity from collision, but also to secure the closing of the street vistas…There is, however, much to be said in favour of the theory upon which the French school of town planners have acted, that it is in every way advantageous for traffic that a number of streets should meet at one point, and that ample provision should here be made for its circulation….in cases where the traffic is comparatively sparse, the chances of collision would be but slightly greater at a point where many roads meet than at the point where one road joins another. Danger arises, and delay is caused to traffic, by every change of direction of the vehicle, and it is obviously simpler, and less likely to cause confusion, to drive straight across a main street, when the condition of the traffic will allow it, than to drive into the street, take a turn, go along the street some distance, take another turn and go out of it; particularly is this the case with such vehicles as motorcars and electric trams, any turn of which, especially at right angles, always causes difficulty and danger.

Unwin thought such a geometrical approach did not fully take into account the human factor, what today we would call design by negotiation, that for example in complex junctions where traffic crosses drivers will slow down.  He goes on to discuss the French concept of the traffic circle, which became the Engliush Roundabout, the first of which was installed at Letchworth, which significantly reduce the number of crossing points.  He considered though in place formed by a large traffic circle

no sense of enclosure can be secured in a place of this character, and some care is required to produce anything like a satisfactory effect in the buildings themselves, so that one would regard it as an undesirable form of place except in cases where traffic considerations must be the all-important ones.

Unwin recognised the multiple functions that roads could serve

 For our most important and busiest highways we may well take a hint from the main railway lines, where central tracks are provided for the through expresses, and outside tracks for the slow stopping trains. This system has been largely adopted in continental cities, where on the main roads and boulevards multiple tracks have been provided. Through traffic in such a system is not impeded by vehicles stopping, turning, entering, or leaving the track, only by those which have to pass right across it; and the number of points at which these crossings can take place may be restricted. In many of these roads special tracks are provided for tramways, for riding,  and for cycling, in addition to those for the ordinary fast and slow traffic of vehicles. With such an arrangement a great improvement is possible in the position of the tram lines; these can be so planned that the trams pass along the side of the footway, so that people boarding or leaving the cars do so in safety. It is our English custom to run our trams in the centre of a wide roadway, and the poor pedestrian has to make a dash, at the risk of his life, through all the traffic of the street before he can reach the car. In the case of cars driven by electricity or motor power it has been found possible, both in America and on the Continent, to run the trams along a belt of grass, with a footway on each side, and thus the tramway becomes a street decoration, introducing a wide grass margin. These wide streets or boulevards are further decorated with avenues of trees, and are favourite promenading grounds in the evening, when the amount of traffic is reduced.

A great innovation of Unwins now widely used is to draw streets in section analysing the arrangement of multiple paths.  In criticising the one size fits all approach of English Bye Laws.

very great variation in widths should be provided for, and roads of different types and characters arranged.

And he argued that neither planning for beauty or planning for traffic need primarily triumph over the other

Roads, however, in addition to being avenues for traffic, serve the only less important function of providing sites and frontages for buildings, and it does not always follow that the form of road and road junction which would be the most convenient for traffic would necessarily afford the best sites for buildings, or provide the most beautiful grouping of these when erected ; it will therefore be necessary in some cases to concede something from one point of view or another, in one case sacrificing the beauty of the buildings for the greater convenience of the traffic and in another sacrificing a little of the directness of the traffic lines for the purpose of securing the more beautiful grouping of the buildings.

We see again in relation to streets Unwins key theory of the street picture

We have seen in speaking of places and squares how important to the effect is a sense of enclosure, the completion of the frame of buildings ; and much the tame applies to street pictures. When considering the buildings therefore, in order to secure a fairly frequent completion of the street picture, we shall desire to close from time to time the vista along the street; this result is secured by a break in the line of the street; or by a change of direction, or curve, either of which has the effect of bringing into view at the end of the street some of the buildings on the concave side.

Unwin then goes into an extended treatment about how roads meeting at different angles can be used to form places.  This is impossible to summarise and I can only recommend looking at the original text and diagrams.

Whilst acknowledging the advantages to creating street pictures of curving streets, Unwin giving High Street Oxford as an example, he also acknowledges the functional advantages of straight streets in getting from a to be and economy in services.  His recommendation to avoid the monotony of long lines of straight streets is to allow

judicious variation of the building line to build up a street picture in a straight street, in which a long  vanishing perspective is very largely replaced by portions of the sides of buildings seen in front elevation, and in this way quite picturesque street effects may be arrived at.  The setting back of some of the individual buildings in a street not only has the effect of breaking up the monotonous row, but affords an opportunity for the creation of forecourts to some of the buildings, which, when suitably treated, are very charming in themselves,

So if used carefully and judiciously that straight streets could be ‘freely used by the modern town planner’ ‘

For town and city centres Unwin favoured, at least when planning places for major public buildings straight streets ‘combined with some simple and regular curved lines’

On a regular site it is not difficult to erect an irregular, picturesque building, if such be desired ; but for an irregular site it may be very difficult to design a successful building in a style which depends largely on symmetry, balance of mass, and simplicity of line for its effect. In the suburbs of towns and in villages, where anything of a stately effect may not be attainable or even desirable, a much freer arrangement may be adopted.

Unwin concludes the chapter with an extended treatment of the landscape treatment of roads.  He was critical of the Victorian vices of overly formal and fussy beds and generally preferred simple, bold and more formal treatment.  His philosophy was that open spaces should be designed to meet a purpose, larger open spaces to meet multiple purpose in different areas and smaller open spaces only one.

The gardener, like the architect, has fixed his eye too exclusivdy on the individual plot; he has thought too much of the bulbs in his own individual beds. We need to think of the street, the district, the town as larger wholes, and find a glorious function and a worthy guidance for the decorative treatment of each plot and each house in so designing them that they shall contribute to some total effect. For is it not a finer thing to be a part of a great whole than to be merely a showy unit among a multitude of other units ?


Construction in 3.7% year on year fall in Q1 – Will Economists Now Believe we are in Double Dip?

Many economists did not belive the Q1 GDP figures, especially the construction component.  The Bank of England especially.  Presumably they looked at the cranes over the Olympics sites and couldnt believe it – err why are those cranes their?

Today the ONS released the Q1 construction output figures.

  • The total volume of construction output in the first quarter of 2012 fell by 4.8 per cent compared with the fourth quarter of 2011 (constant prices, seasonally adjusted)
  • The total volume of construction output in the first quarter of 2012 fell by 3.7 per cent compared with the same quarter in 2011 (constant prices, seasonally adjusted)
  • The volume of all new work fell by 6.9 per cent and repair and maintenance fell by 0.4 per cent compared with the fourth quarter of 2011 (constant prices, seasonally adjusted)
  • The volume of all new work fell by 5.6 per cent compared with the same quarter in 2011 while repair and maintenance was flat (constant prices, seasonally adjusted)
  • Quarter on quarter volume reductions were seen in six out of the nine sectors. Infrastructure showed the largest decrease of 15.9 per cent (constant prices, seasonally adjusted)

I cant wait to see Stephanie Flanders try and explain away these, bad weather, leap year etc. etc.  dont cause a 16% drop in infrastructure spending, crazy austerity and growth sapping lack of investment (when we are at historic low interest rates) does.  Time for london based economists and journalists to get out more.

Beware the Policy Exchange Bringing Biodiversity Offsetting Gifts #NPPF

Today the Policy Exchange published its research paper Nurturing Nature -Policy to protect and improve biodiversity

It states that policy for protection of biodiversity is weak, that the NPPF should be toughened up on biodiversity, that government should be less concerned about regulatory costs to homebuilders.

Fall off a chair the Policy Exchange!  To be fair the report is a lot more rigorous in its its sources and analysis than most Policy Exchange reports.  Perhaps they have taken the half baked moniker they acquired to heart.  One notes that despite this being a report on planning related issues Alex Morton has had nothing to do with it.  It does contain for once some original research but in this case just the notoriously unreliable results of a spam FOI request to LPAs.

But watch out because thir is an ideological axe to grind.

The primary thrust of the report is that uk policies for protecting biodiversity are weak, quoting at length the NEA, that traditional mechanisms for biodiversity offsetting such as S106 are weak and inconsistent, and that the qualifier in the NPPF that the net gain where possible on biodiversity be strengthened by dropping where possible.  It argues strongly for a national compulsory scheme of biodiversity offsetting. The Kind of scheme protected in open source planning and which DEFRA backed away from last year proposing only voluntary pilots because of lack of evidence on whether it would be successful.

There are lots of biodiversity offsetting schemes around the world but they are always and everywhere highly controversial.

The key problem with offets is that the impacts occur and then they are offset.  It can take several hundred years for the recreated environment to mature to the point at which it provides equivalent value, especially for ecosystems such as temperate or tropical forests.  From a purely economic point of view you would apply an discount rate over the period the replacement ecosystem would take to mature.  This makes many offet schemes much more expensive.  Ideally you need to be creating the offsets alongside and before the impacts – which implies a major role for agencies and national and local government.

The second objection is that it doesn’t deal with the causes of biodiversity loss in the first instance, although the counter argument is that by creating a regulatory cost it will spur innovation – curiously the argument that regulation can spur innovation (which the report sets out) is never applied by the Policy Exchange to planning regulations.

A third objection is that it isnt just about maintaining biodoviserity but maintaining ecosystem services.  A 2009 meta analysis  by Jose Rey Benayas and colleagues compared measures of biodiversity and intermediate ecosystem services in degraded, restored and relatively undisturbed reference sites. Restored sites showed a 25% increase in intermediate ecosystem service provision compared to degraded sites . However, restoration sites showed approximately 20% lower provision of services when compared to reference sites .  We need to look well beyond maintaining levels of a particular species towards looking at how to maintain and enhance all ecosystem services.  That means shifting in philosophy entirely away from mitigation towards ecologically integrated design and enhancement.

Yet the Policy Exchange report doesn’t deal at all to these principal objections.  In a paper if you are promoting a policy idea you would be expected to look at the principal intellectual objections and present counter arguments and then weigh a conclusion.  The Nurturing Nature report doesn’t do this at all.  If it were an academic paper it would fail peer review.  So ultimately the Policy Exchange still attracts the moniker of an ideologically loaded dumb tank promoting the interests of rentier income over the environment.

The policies promoted in the report would increase the losses to the environment, as they could be offset, whilst developers would not pay the full impact of these losses as the recreated environments would not be restored to full value for generations.  It is giving a discount to ant-ecological development.

What is worse the report states that offsetting is intended to bridge the ‘biodiversity gap’ a gap in large part created by cuts to Natural England and other bodies budgets.  So it again becomes a cover for cuts, not creating a net gain but designed to cover up a net loss.

The report even toys with the idea of international offsetting, getting rid of an acre of woodland in England because the global value of an acre of rainforest in Brazil is much more.  The risk is this just becomes another neoliberal spatial fix, trash here, protect some areas far away, whilst pressure around them are diverted so habitat loss is not decreased at all.

‘London Whale’ and other bad banking deals increase risk of Credit Crunch later in 2012

A credit downgrade is very bad news for a bank it increases the amount of collateral it must hold potentially requiring an increase in equity (difficult in current circumstances) or retention of profits.  Banks in rebuilding their capital because of excessively risky past trades that have gone wrong will then have to increase lending.

Today we learn that from the FT that

Moody’s .. announced it was placing 17 banks on review for a downgrade earlier this year, citing “vulnerabilities” in the companies’ vast and volatile capital markets businesses… [it] was updating its financial ratings to take into account the historical tendency of banks to leverage their balance sheets and arbitrage global financial rules, often to the detriment of the banks’ own health and the safety of the wider banking system.

“These firms are constantly moving into and out of new products,” said Mark LaMonte, chief credit officer of financial institutions at Moody’s. “The regulatory rules around risk weighting may not be able to keep up with them.”

Moody’s caution could see all 17 banks downgraded when the review is finally completed, expected to happen in mid-June. Three of the banks, Credit SuisseMorgan Stanley, and UBS, face as much as a three-notch downgrade; 10 face a two-notch slide and four a one-notch drop.

Anticipating a rating downgrade JP Morgan has finally gone public on the much gossiped about story about the problems of the London based trader ‘London Whale’ – nickname for Bruno Michel Iksil – who has amassed such an outsized position that Hedge Funds have spotted it and are betting against it.  Only a few weeks ago JP Morgan was scoffing at the gossip, calling it a ‘tempest in a teapot’ now the Whale has cost then £2 billion.

WSJ last month

 Iksil had developed a massive position of credit-default swaps in corporate bonds, essentially betting that an index of corporations would strengthen. His purchases were large enough that they moved prices.

Hedge funds have taken the opposite side of the bet, assuming that Iksil has built such a large position he is destined to have to sell at losses. The Journal reported earlier this week that the so-called London Whale has stopped trading, which has led to changes in the market’s directions.

Losses in the last six weeks have hit $2 billion.  Jp Morgans shares have dropped 5.5% in after hours trading.  The combination of a credit rating downgrading and a reduced equity price will require an increase in collatoral requirements for JP Morgan that may extend to over $100 billion dollars.

Many other banks are exposed to similar CDS ‘weapons of financial mass destruction’ risks, as Moodys have detected.  So in the light of equity and credit downgrades their balance sheets will have to contract.  The second half of 2012 will be very hairy, a further shock such as from a major sovereign default could easily trigger another credit crunch, which we only narrowly avoided in the last months.