It is two years since Sir Oliver Letwin formally left the government, and yet in recent months he has found himself relied on by Theresa May almost as much as if he had retained his role in the Cabinet Office.
The former Conservative policy chief has been credited with averting at least two major Tory rebellions over Brexit by developing compromise amendments to the Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill.
In November he was asked by Philip Hammond to tackle another thorny issue for the Prime Minister, who has pledged to increase the number of new homes to 300,000 per year: the vast gap between the number of properties given planning permission, and those that have actually been built.
Sir Oliver’s inquiry began amid claims developers were deliberately “banking” land. The only “land banking” that does exist, he has concluded, is as a result of the “absorption rate”, which sees builders sell new properties over a longer period of time because putting a large number of similar homes on to the market at the same time was depressing prices.
Sir Oliver’s analysis found that firms were taking an average of 15.5 years to complete large developments, with work progressing at a rate of 6.5 per cent of the development per year. At the extreme end of the scale the buildout rate of a development was almost 44 years. “It is an extraordinary fact,” he says. The larger the site, Sir Oliver’s team found, the smaller the percentage of the development that would be built each year.
The problem, he has concluded, is that homes on the largest sites were too alike, both in terms of the buildings themselves and their surroundings, and the “tenure” of the properties – whether, for example, they were ultimately aimed at private purchasers or renters, or those who would be renting through local authorities or housing associations.
“When you go to these estates they will sometimes tell you, ‘we have three or four different flags’, as they put it, or ‘outlets’, or even ‘brands’,” he says.
“We have wandered up and down these sites and looked for the differences. I assure you, it’s very difficult to tell which is which.”
He adds: “There are people who want retirement living, people who want student accommodation, people who want homes that look and feel completely different from the sorts of things builders are building on these sites. They will find them in the second hand market very possibly, but they won’t find them on these sites, because these sites are being built like these builders build them – that’s what’s on offer. Any car you want as long as it’s black.”
The exact “policy levers” that Sir Oliver will recommend to tackle the problem will be the subject of the next six months of his review, on which he will report ahead of the November budget. But he now knows what he is aiming to achieve.
“The outcome we need is an outcome which somehow varies in lots of different modes and ways what’s on offer. Just as important that they should be varied in soft ways to do with architecture, urban design, ecology and style as in the hard ways of tenure and size.
“If you can have different markets that you’re addressing… you will end up with more homes.”
Sir Oliver has been careful to keep his focus on the time period between planning consent being gained and a site being completed, in line with his formal brief. But he will also make recommendations for tackling problems that he has discovered are delaying – by an average of more than four years – the point at which full consent is provided.
“We discovered en route that the provision of major infrastructure, particularly major transport infrastructure… has a huge effect,” he said.
“Barking Riverside [in east London] for years and years didn’t happen to speak of because everyone was discussing how not to provide an extension of the Docklands Light Railway. They eventually decided it wasn’t going to be provided and they would instead extend the London Overground. Then Barking could proceed.
“It would be much better if our country were one in which once someone’s decided that there’s a large area of post-industrial land which it would be really useful to build, somebody got their act together and got the infrastructure in place.”
He added: “There are lots of government schemes and money and so on available… but I have noted that co-ordination across the various layers of government – departments, agencies, Highways England and National Grid and all these others – is not good enough to create the energy to get rapid decisions made.”
Another problem is a shortage of bricklayers – which will only get worse if the Government’s efforts lead to a rapid expansion in the number of homes being built, he warns.
He calls for a five-year “flash” programme of on-the-job training to increase the number of bricklayers by around 15,000 – adding almost a quarter to the current workforce.
Sir Oliver understands the scale of the task on his hands. Housing, as Mrs May has realised, could make or break the Conservatives at the next election.
“I think there’s absolutely no doubt that any political party that doesn’t take really, really seriously the need to provide sufficient homes for our population… is going to suffer.”
I was reminded of Colin Buchanan’s 1966 plan for the MHLG for a linear ‘Solent City’ between Southampton and Portsmouth in a tweet reply to me from CPRE Hampshire.
There is some irony there. Sir Colin was chairman of CPRE from 1980-1985, whilst his Solent City plans drew such fear and opposition locally that Chris Huhne used it frequently on the stump to frighten local into voting for him to stop it well into this century.
When one compares however his plans and what was actually built in South Hampshire since you would have to prefer his. As Nick Phelps details in his book An Anatomy of Sprawl
Solent City became Subtopia City, an extremely dense and populous aggregation that emerged without even a figment of town planning.
In the 60s Buchanan was a fount of ideas. He wasn’t just a transport planner, he also trained and qualified as an architect and was the Ministry of Transport’s planning advisor and the first chief planning inspector (and the last who could design and build a bridge).
His other great unbuilt plan of course was for Maplin airport, and the linear city through Kent to access it through Essex, together with a city of 600.000. For a while it was government policy strongly backed by Heath (an airports expert who sat on the CAA committee in the 1940s) – who upon the projects cancellation by Peter Shore stated that the predicable legacy that Heathrow would become the worst airport in the western world.
At the heart of both proposals was Buchanans thinking on urban form and city growth, as set out in the South Hampshire study.
Looking at the advantages of the radial-concentric, the orthogonal grid, and the directional grid he found that the directional grid was best able to cope with growth, indeed it was open ended.
The structure is not fixed or static in size. This was a basic factor in our whole approach to the study of the growth of urban structure, that it should be a structure capable of growth in the future and should never be seen as a complete unit… . It does not result in a fixed static plan
It was Doxiade’s ideas about the big grid, plus his own about movement.
Though he too easily dissed radial concentric growth – which can be combined with a grid as Pedro Ortiz’s work shows- the directional grid has obvious advantages in coastal areas, and in inland areas away from major cities where you have the only major transport stricture of a railway line. This has particular resonance know with the Oxford-MK-Cambs study and joint strategic plans being prepared for South Essex and South Hants.
Looking back on his ideas. Yes they were visionary and well ahead of their time. They were also a product of their time, boundlessly expansionary and expensive and bound to fail in the oil crisis. They relied too much on the motor car and though they included rail improvements it was very secondary.
They also raise an important issue. Do you show in a plan an end state fixed 15, 30, 35 years ahead, or an endless corridor of growth? There was enough grid squares in Buchanan’s Solent City plan to show over 100 years of growth. Which killed it off. Cities cannot grow forever as the cost of servicing them by infrastructure which keeps everyone able to move becomes prohibitively expensive.
The potential advantages though of a linear city (with green gaps) where geography demands it are undeniable, even more so in a form where the majority of people can commute by public transport, walking and cycling. Indeed an iron test for strategic plans today is whether they have any conception whatsoever about urban form and sustainable movement – look at the West of England plan for example for how not to do it.
To be considered by council in July.
It has been bold and has been one of the few authorities in the London Green Belt to consider review and deallocation, atr this instance in South Godstone.
However its OAN is 470 a year, its plan is for 300 a year. Meeting the need in full would need three South Godstones (given the limits to what can be developed in the plan period).
Despite the plan being nearly 300 pages long nowhere does it explain the choice of its spatial strategy or the reason why it choose to undershoot its OAN so dramatically. Nor does it set out how and where this shortfall will be met through the duty to cooperate.
This is always a sign where members is a smoke filled room process has eliminated the sites they don’t like and the target is adding up what is left.
Tandridge entered this process by stating if it concentrated housing in one place it could provide infrastructure such as schools etc. more efficiently. May be so but the scale of shortfall is such as to require three secondary schools worth of development. By binding itself from the outset to choose only one it has rejected additional sites at Lingfield and Crowhurst which together could meet the need in full.
Will an inspector accept this? Of course not. On housing and DTC grounds this is an obvious non starter. There has been a distinct lack of proactive joint working across Surrey and the Gatwick Diamond.
We know the course of events from South Essex, unsound plan, threat of intervention and eventual joint strategic plan.
We need one ASAP for the Gatwick Diamond – the three North Easter West Sussex Districts and four Eastern Surrey Districts.
There is little point is Tandridge submitting a local plan to an examination which would be a predicable waste of money. Like St Albans who was in the same position a few years ago their members should reject the plan and immediately start joint working on the diamond strategy. I was widely criticised by (no ex)the leader of St Alban’s district at the time for saying so. Look what happened to him.
The announcement by the Highways Agency of the Preferred route for a Third Thames Crossing shows an endgame for 20 years of uncertainty over linking Essex and Kent. The lack of any project to link the two was an ultimate failing of the Thames Gateway project. There was no infrastructure led gateway. We now know from census data that far from being a ‘growth’ area regional plans for the area (which never included major new strategic growth locations) actually proposed less housing than household growth suggested. So far from a growth policy it was one of restraint.
The crossing project is controversial, Thurrock unsurprisingly opposes it because of impact on residents.
One of the main drivers of change is here the huge growth of logistics around Tilbury with the development of a 1 billion expansion of Tilbury – under the DCO regime and as such separate from all other planning and transport decisions, the new port London Gateway (on a former oil refinery) and the very rapid development of the former Coryon oil refinery at Coryton as Thames Enterprise Park. This represents a rapid shift to a post oil economy. All of these terminals will be gone within 40 years. In employment terms this is the fasting growing parish in the UK.
But why only a road tunnel? A rail connection between Essex and Kent has been mooted for generations?
The potential is highlighted by the Mayor of London taking over safeguarding of and promotion of Crossrail 1 extension to Ebbsfleet, Gravesend and Hooe sidings, a location only 3 milws from the proposed tunnel.
I suggest Crossrail 2 veers north just west of Hooe sidings into two extra parallel tunnels dug at must reduced cost alongside and at the same time as the Lower Thames Crossing. Then it would veer north with an interchange station with C2C at West Tilbury, then with the London Tilbury and Southend line at West Tilbury. Finally it would head north west to avoid the hills at Thordon to meet with Crossrail 1 heading into London at Nags Head Lane, with a eastern chord to enable connections from Norwich and Brentwood through to Kent and vice versa.
The eastern end of Crossrail 1 would become a loop greatly easing headway and capacity issues (as indeed could the Western End via Hook and Aldershot but that is another story).
This clearly would greatly increase rail accessibility in South Essex to the growth areas of Thurrock. It also opens up possibilities from strategic growth locations for South Essex in their emerging strategic plan. By the way all of the points of interchange I mentioned are outside flood risk areas.
As per Crossrail 2 land value capture would offset part of the cost.
As for the tunnel spoil, as for Crossrail 1 lets use it for land reclamation in the area , for new Salt Marsh or for new areas for housing growth, or both.
So why not calculate a BCR of this and associated development opportunities opened up?
Letwin review to be released Monday, seemingly backing away from radical and financial measures to reduce delays through land speculation.
Letwin says developers could increase the choice of design, size and tenure of new homes without impacting on the local market and therefore speed up the rate at which houses are built and sold.
This might be true but it only fixes on price – as economists always say never reason from a price. Building smaller cheaper houses might not affect prices in that market segment but it does hot marginal revenue and returns. So developers wont do it willingly. If they were forced too they would reduce supply to maintain revenue – counterproductive.
CIVIC leaders have banded together to explore introducing a green belt in the Hampshire countryside.
The Partnership for Urban South Hampshire (PUSH), made up of the 10 councils from the southern part of the county, agreed to explore plans for the adoption of the building restriction area.
This proposal came from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) which says the belt will protect the remaining countryside gaps between the urban areas of Eastleigh, Fareham, Portsmouth and Southampton.
If legally approved, this will mean no housing can be built on the land.
Councillor Seán Woodward, chairman of PUSH, leader of Fareham Borough Council, and county council member, recommended the committee looked at how the idea could be adopted.
This was supported by many other leaders, who spoke about the risks of not protecting the countryside and the potential benefits for local residents.
CPRE Hampshire chief executive Charlee Bennett said the green belt would protect some of Hampshire’ fields from house building and development.
She said: “We are absolutely thrilled to have had such a positive response.
“The adoption of a South Hampshire green belt would maintain the integrity of the cities, prevent urban sprawl and safeguard the beautiful countryside which we consistently hear is so important to communities. We are delighted that PUSH has decided to investigate the adoption of the belt further.
“Although the idea has been around for years, this is the first time the topic has been given the consideration it deserves, and we are so pleased for the unanimous support.”
PUSH will now be exploring options by working with councils including Eastleigh, Fareham, Test Valley, and Winchester, who have some of the most vulnerable green spaces.
Much of South Hampshire is an example of the worst of urban sprawl in England with development filling most of the are between Portsmouth and Southampton and along the A3 for 20 miles. Unlike Bournemouth /Poole it never had a Green Belt. It was always a strategic decision by the then Hampshire Structure Plan to push development north to Basingstoke and Andover and to the South Coast to avoid AONB and the leafy villages of the Test Valley.
This was strategically inevitable. The A30 used to be the main route to the South West till the 20th Century, the decision was made not to upgrade it and to head the M3 directly south to Portsmouth rather than South West towards Exteter. With Central Hampshire only served by stagecoach roads the growth had to be pushed to the South Coast.
PUSH is the pioneer of joint working. But its strategy is out of date and simply split housing between district, it never defined strategic growth locations and its rapid transit plans came to nothing.
There are important gaps in along the coast, notably the Meon Valley (the only one defined as of regional importance currently by PUSH) and the Hamble.
There would be a good case for a closely defined Green Belt, like that between Cheltenham and Gloucester, to protect these gaps.
This I suspect is not what the campaigners want, what they want is a ring of steel, sorry green, around the towns. However some of them must expand, in key directions it is blocked anyway by AONB and the New Forest and South Downs. If they do declare a Green Belt make sure it is outside strategic locations with enough land for 20 years of growth and areas of strategic reserve for 10 or more years, otherwise it wont be permanent, and no point in having a temporary Green Belt.
Outside these river valleys I suspect a better approach would be either an urban growth boundary or Welsh type ‘Green Wedges’ (like Green Belt but no expectation they would be ‘permanent’). Such a designation would need national recognition though to ensure it has the full backing of the NPPF.
It is a difficult one. Some growth north of the M27 is inevitable as South of the M27 has so few sites. It will cerainly be necessary to sacrifice one or more of the gaps between steellments (such as around Hedge End) to protect the rest. This shows that designating Green Belt is an act of regional planning, about creating places then using Green Belt to shape those places and protect more sensitive places, it is not about wrapping a corset of those areas that look Green.
Or in Boris’s words ‘F*** industry’
No measures proposed in leaked report – which suggests it has been watered down to nothing.
Ministers and officials must invoke Britain’s effort to build Spitfires during the Second World War to help construct the homes the country needs, one of the Government’s key housing advisers says today.
Sir Oliver Letwin, who is carrying out a major review for Theresa May, says infrastructure must be organised like wartime aircraft production to solve the housing crisis.
He warns that the slow provision of new power lines and transport links is holding up the construction of thousands of homes by “years and years”.
In an interview with The Telegraph, he calls for a new cross-government task force to co-ordinate the installation of utilities on large sites, warning that those involved in the process must “get their act together”.
Sir Oliver suggested that county councils, Highways England, National Grid and power firms were dragging their heels over providing the necessary infrastructure.
“When we were fighting the Second World War and we needed a lot of Spitfires, Lord Beaverbrook [then minister of aircraft production] got to work and just mobilised a lot of people so that all the things you needed for Spitfires were got into the right bit of the factory. Britain depended on it.
“This is not that urgent, but it is quite urgent. It is a major plank of policy and it has a big effect economically. Somebody has got to go round and actually get all the bits together so you can get the Spitfires. At the moment that doesn’t happen.”Sir Oliver’s analysis found delays of up to 12 years before final planning permissions had even been granted on large sites. He said: “It would be much better if our country were one in which once someone’s decided that there’s a large area of post-industrial land which it would be really useful to build on, somebody actually got their act together and got the infrastructure in place.”
Sir Oliver’s review of “buildout rates” began last year as Philip Hammond warned that there were “270,000 residential planning permissions unbuilt” in London alone. His interim report, seen by this newspaper, states that developers are taking an average of 15 years to build homes on the country’s biggest sites, even after the new infrastructure has been installed.
The veteran Tory said the rates at which large developments were built could be “substantially accelerated” if developers produced a greater variety of homes.
Sir Oliver also warns that a “rapid expansion” in the number of bricklayers will be needed to meet the Government’s home-building target.