History repeats itself, ‘first as tragedy, second as farce’ as a certain well known German writer said. No more so than in the field of Planning Policy, where we are now in the third round of what might be termed the ‘Grove Prescott Cycle’.
This cycle plays out as follows:
- Government (of whatever colour) announces ‘planning reform’
- Opposition (of whatever colour) denounces reform (whatever is proposed) as a ‘developers charter’
- CPRE launches a national campaign opposing any reform
- The Daily Telegraph publishes photographs of concreting of Green Belt – in each and every case of sites 10s or 100s of miles outside the Green Belt
- The Government U-Turns
- Announces Priority for ‘Brownfield First’
- Housing Completions fall off a cliff, local plan making and housing numbers in local plans are reduced
- After a couple of years the Treasury panics and announces a economic review after 2-3 years, worried about overheating of housing markets and falling off of construction as proportion of GDP
- Government (of whatever colour) announces ‘planning reform’
- Rinse Repeat ad nauseum
This is the ‘Gove Prescott Cycle’ but its origins go back to Patrick Jenkin and even to the 1960sas governments have reigned back of housing targets as household formation forecasts were undershot because households only form into houses that are built.
You might recognise this as an example of Nauhaus’s ‘political business cycle‘ fluctuation of economic activity due to intervention of political actors in an election cycle.
It is striking just how much Govy is repeating point by point all of the great political mistakes of John Prescott’s time at the ODPM.
You can read an excellent summary of this time by Matthew Spry on Lichfields Blog and Andrew Pritchard In Chapter 3 of the English Regional Planning 2000-10, edited by Corinne Swain, Tim Marshall, and Tony Baden.
‘Research by Savills in 2004 indicated that the immediate effect of PPG3 was to ‘restrict greenfield availability rather than increase the availability or capability of development of brownfield sites’ – which in turn had implications for land prices and housing supply‘
The Barker Review of Housing Supply Interim Report (2003) observed that:“The sequential test introduced in PPG 3 requires local authorities to release land for housing development in an order of preference that prioritises brownfield sites. It is not the intention of the policy to restrict land supply but some local authorities appear to have overinterpreted it to the detriment of housing being delivered. Indeed research from ODPM supports this point, arguing that local planning authorities understand ‘brownfield first’ but also erroneously believe PPG3 says ‘greenfield never’.The ‘prematurity of sites’ is often a reason for the refusal or delay of applications for housing developments. However, priority sites may not always be immediately available or suitable for development. In some local authorities, this policy is used to block development rather than actively manage the release of land.”
The Sequential ‘brownfield first’ approach failed and barely lasted three years (2000-2003) before the Barker review forced changes. Against a background where the political priority was reducing greenfield development it became a policy of ratcheting down greenfield not ratcheting up overall supply. The policy contained a number of overall flaws:
- It failed to make the fundamental modelling distinction between stock and flow of previously developed housing sites and did not consider cases (the majority in the South East) where the stock or flow of deliverable housing sites was sufficient to maintain and increase supply
- It failed to consider deliverability, viability and point of availability of sites
- The 5 year horizon was far too short for strategic sites
- The Plan Monitor and Manage approach never worked for large sites which need certainty of infrastructure and financing to get started at all. It was a drip feed approach which instead needed a breaching of the dams.
- The money to deliver the most difficult brownfield sites never came
- It failed to understand between the geographical distinction between spread of housing need and distribution of brownfield sites
- It not not understand the relative scarcity of Brownfield sites which then accounted nationally for less than 1/3rd of national need over 20 years (and since has fallen as the easiest brownfield sites have been developed and the rate of brownfield sites coming forward has slowed due to the reversal of deindustrialisation).
Prescott though planning across a 20 years horizon was ridiculous as after 20 years urban renaissance would sweep the north, and hence planned housing in the South East could undershoot. He was wrong, most northern major cities did revive but south-north migration was very low. They simply added to and did not displace housing need. Prescott was mightily annoyed with Proffers Stephen Crows report on the draft RPG9 for not trying hard enough to meet housing need in full and lacking evidence that it could not be done. Of course it could be done with good planning and effort. Similarly Gove in his words to the DLU select committee criticized planning inspectors for criticising planning authorities for ‘lacking sophistication’ in dealing with local housing requirements. The truth being that experts saw through the Nimby bullshit being whispered in the SoS’s ear (just like Prescott) of an incoming and entirely lacking in sophistication, expertise and experience secretary of State. There is a planning golden rule here. When ministers criticise PINS it is because they are not following a nonsensical and unevidenced political dictat that inspectors are supposed to guess (in this case from reading the runes of a bizarre ‘build back beaver’ conference speech) that hasn’t yet been translated into written planning policy.
Prescott’s remaining Grace was the regional housing targets as a backstop, but their abolition by Pickles led to a further lost half dozen years as strategic sites were again kicked into the long grass. Notably Prescott revealed in his memoirs that his early years housing policies were a great mistake. As will Govy im sure when Truss relegates him to the House of Lords
Now policy seems to be dominated by the ‘Piers Corbyn’ false prophet of bullshit to the Nimbys Ian Mulheirn whose ideas are accepted by almost no other figure in the housing economics field and seems to think that speculation on housing and financialization is the cause of high house prices not scarcity, omitting the simple fact that no commodity is speculated on unless it is scarce. Promoting the simple bonkers insane idea we have a surplus of households over housing, ommitting the circular nature of household formation which has falled because of a shortage of houses for people to move into. Why are such nutters listed to – politicians listen to him for the same reason antivaxers listed to Corbyn – they confirm the conspiracies, wispers and prejudices held by certain groups – in this case Nimby cllrs and Mps.
There are lessons here –
- to stick firmly to the policy measures in the centre of the Gove-Prescott Cycle – focussing both on unlocking brownfield sites and increasing housing numbers
- Large Greenfield New Settlements with delivery mechanisms running across multiple electoral cycles will always be needed
- Attempting to shove Housing Numbers around the Board from North to South like a giant game of Risk never works, policies which cap below jobs led need anywhere will simply crush completions
- A long term strategic planning approach to determining numbers is needed
- Regional planning needs to be based on functional city or county regions not artificial regions based only on linguistic differences
- Planning for large sites must proceed at local, sub-regional and regional level in parallel, otherwise large sites will take 20 years or more to progress
- Don’t oversell planning reform and don’t overreact and panic to the inevitable Nimby backlash
- Don’t disrupt plan making by changes, any change will be used as a faux excuse to slow down and reverse the release of land
- Don’t listen to false prophets and unrepresentative AstroTurf Nimby groups; you will regret it in your memoirs.
- A long terms approach, spanning decades, is needed for strategic infrastructure unlocking strategic growth.
If your priority is to increase development (not simply the proportion of a falling quantum of completions) on brownfield sites you focus actions and spending on such sites. If your priority is to reduce development on Greenfield sites then ‘Brownfield first’ simply becomes an excuse, a prop for policies that simply reduce development overall. As we find from close study of sites over long horizons it doesn’t actually prevent development of the best strategic Greenfield sites, it simply postpones them, altering the phasing into someone else’s administration. You see the real motivation by many suburban Nimby MPs who wnat to reduce housebuilding in cities also. There priority is not brownfield more but all housing less.
The false narrative is that developers neglect Borwnfield sites because they are cherry picking more profitable Greenfield sites. By the same stupid logic you should criticise farmers for farming the best agricultural land rather than expensively reclaiming the most boggy land, and if farmers produce less food overall and are less profitable and can reinvest less in improving productivity. Of course all land has a margin beyond which some sites are unviable, and the most profitable sites are developed first. Many brownfield sites are the most profitable, as they are central and well serviced and you often don’t have to pay for new infrastrastructure (though not always). The fact that we dont see far more brownfield development is that a) there isnt enough of it, and here all the evidence, even from CPRE research, shows there isnt enough to hit a 300k a year target, and b) much of it is unviable. Given Sunaks unwillingness to massively invest in brownfield recovery (which has an opportunity cost, such as developing rapid transit and infrastructure on well located sites) a brownfield first policy is simply a housing less policy, or simply a ‘dont upset the Nimbys’ policy.