Abolish all green belts and ignore the nimbys

When you watch or listen to a political debate programme, and you hear someone saying something like ‘I am not against all development, but…’ or ‘I don’t dispute the need for more housing, but…’, take it as a cue: you can now get up and grab a beer from the fridge without missing anything. You can safely assume that the next few minutes will consist of some lame, contrived excuses for nimbyism.

One of these excuses, which seems superficially plausible, goes something like this:

At some point in the distant future, it might become permissible to touch one or two blades of grass – but this has to be the absolute last resort. First, every other conceivable option has to be exhausted. These other options are then presented as almost endless. The country, the story goes, is full of derelict homes that could be brought back into use, brownfield land lying idle, and decaying neighbourhoods that could flourish once again if only they were given a little shove. Why despoil the countryside as long as so many opportunities for urban redevelopment remain?

It sounds superficially attractive because it appeals to our aversion against waste and inefficiency. We would not buy a new computer and throw away the old one just because it is running a little slowly. We would simply delete a few files and run a spyware scan. Presented in this way, it sounds as if ‘urban redevelopment’ meant no more than applying the basic principles of good housekeeping to the realm of city planning.

It seems, in fact, so obvious that one wonders where the catch is. If ‘urban renewal’ is such a no-brainer, why is it not already happening? Why would anyone build a new house, if all it takes is to wash the graffiti off an existing one, and clear out the spiders’ webs? There are also costs associated with connecting new settlements to existing ones, and these are broadly internalised through ‘Section 106’ agreements. Why would a developer want to incur them, if they can be so easily avoided?

Browse through nimby campaign materials, and you will look in vain for an explanation. You will be repeatedly assured about the allegedly limitless opportunities for urban regeneration, but only in the most unspecific of terms. Where are all those hidden treasures that just need a little dusting off?

There are occasional glimpses of greater clarity, though, and they are enough to give you us an idea about why the nimby movement prefers vagueness. When Simon Jenkins, the anti-housing tsar, talks about ‘urban renewal’, what he has in mind is shoving people into northern towns characterised by a declining population. So what is behind the brownfield site/urban renewal myth is a simple aggregation fallacy: a house is a house is a house. Who cares whether it is in London or in Sunderland?

The trouble is, once we accept the fallacy of treating the whole of the UK as one single housing market, it would be consistent to go a step further, and include the rest of Europe as well. One could then argue that as long as Spain is full of empty flats and houses, no square inch of the British greenbelt must be touched. Why don’t you move to Seseña, and stop blocking Simon Jenkins’ view?

There is no need to spell out the errors in this line of thinking. The geographical ‘rebalancing’ of the economy has been a policy objective for ages, and it is not for a lack of ambition or public expenditure that it has not had much effect. The reality is that the centres of economic gravity shift over time, and the drivers behind this are not well understood. What we do know is that settlement patterns tend to shift with them. We should allow them to shift, rather than fossilise a settlement pattern that evolved around the economic geography of the past. The UK’s settlement pattern of today should reflect where the people currently alive want to live, not where their ancestors wanted to live. This is why ‘renewing’ existing urban areas forever is not an answer. You don’t need to throw away your computer just because it is getting slow, but if you need to run a modern software programme, repairing your old Commodore Amiga yet another time won’t do.

That is why there is nothing wrong with building on greenbelt land in the south-east, even if there are still three empty homes in Barrow-in-Furness and two brownfield sites in Sunderland left. Given the abundance of undeveloped land, urban expansion is also easily reconcilable with protecting genuinely attractive parts of the countryside. We should abolish all green belts, and allow cities to expand according to where people want to live.  

That is one of the most depressing and mindless things I have ever read.
You ain't seen nothing yet, Ashley. Stick around for a bit, there's more to come.
Kristian Niemietz's analysis is short but admirably sharp. The growth of urban settlements was characterized throughout history by a process of accretion. That is, until the absurd notion of the Green Belt hobbled and blighted it. Many Nimbys gaze over their adored prospects from houses that once blighted the doubtless still more pleasant prospects from earlier houses. Yet now most are determined to deny this process to others (O lente, lente, curite noctis equi). Their demands for 'preservation'* bring to mind the old lady glutton in C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters. Her gluttony had 'querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness and self-concern': these same vices are now more handsomely dressed-up as a love of nature; dedication to heritage; sustainability etc. The old woman's seemingly modest 'insatiable demands' merely detracted from the pleasure and equanimity of those who served her. Although her material wants were abstemious and never excessive in quantity, they entailed the undue servitude and misery of others. So it is with Nimbys: their (truly) exquisite demands must triumph over others' lowly and mundane needs. In their world, the Divine Right of Grass trumps the need for shelter; the contemplation of aesthetic pleasures vanquishes children playing in sunny gardens - let them have brownfield apartments! There is a certain irony in the widespread bourgeois support for the destruction of property rights that has attended the process of 'Town and Country Planning' - but then again perhaps not, since these restrictions greatly enhance the value of existing property by restricting supply in the presence of high demand and allow some to use the power of the State to protect their interests. But a deeper causes may be our habituation to these impositions, especially when there is a pervasive blindness to economic thinking. "Thus custom becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude. Men are like handsome race horses who first bite the bit and later like it, and rearing under the saddle a while soon learn to enjoy displaying their harness and prance proudly beneath their trappings. Similarly men will grow accustomed to the idea that they have always been in subjection, that their fathers lived in the same way; they will think they are obliged to suffer this evil, and will persuade themselves by example and imitation of others, finally investing those who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the idea that it has always been that way." Étienne de La Boétie. The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. * The CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) was originally the Council of the Preservation of Rural England.
"The CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) was originally the Council of the Preservation of Rural England." It would be more accurately named the Campaign to Protect Residential Equity.
Typical free-market fundamentalist dogma. Typically, does bother to stop and ask why we need planning regulations in the first place. Land has a value but no costs of production = the purest form of monopoly there is. If you allow the value of that monopoly to be capitalised, by not asking landowners to pay the full 100% for their privileges ie regulation through taxation, you get all sorts of nasty side effects. Firstly you get a huge transfer of wealth. Never mind about that. Secondly you get inefficiency and mis-allocation. Which should be obvious to free-marketeers(EU butter mountains, remember those?). Landowners are in effect receiving a £200bn per year subsidy. Subsidies skew the market. In this case we get empty/underutilised business and residential property, vacant plots with planning permission, and under productive businesses taking up productive sites. Apart from the fact this land inefficiency causes a huge deadweight loss on our economy, it means development in cities is less dense and less responsive than it should be. If landowners are getting an on going freebe, there is no market pressure for them to be productive. It's a monopoly doh! So in lieu of the fact we don't have taxation to properly regulate the land monopoly, in order to prevent one of its symptoms, urban sprawl, we regulate via planning. Urban sprawl is not necessary but it has malign affects, both economically and socially (never mind about the welfare loss from losing "undeveloped" land). If London had the same population density as Dallas Tx, it would have to be nine times larger. Studies in America have shown that children brought up in the outskirts of sprawling cities fair worse than those of a similar socio-economic back ground to those in city centres. We also know that sprawl cost more in terms of infrastructure and pollution(more and longer car journeys). It's also ugly. In America where they experience this, sprawl has become a problem to be tackled, not celebrated. Our politicians, over 70 years ago, had the foresight to see these potential problems. It is a shame they also prevented more building upward too, as this has made the pressure outwards worse. We have also been here before in de-regulating our land monopoly. Parker Morris minimum room sizes were scrapped in 1980. The results are inevitable. Regulations on buildings are like tax, the incidence falling on the value of land. So room sizes got smaller, land values went up. Brainless, but here we go again, about to make the same mistake. If we de-regulate planning, at the margins, we will see prices fall. Temporarily. In London and the SE we will merely be added extra capacity. More agglomeration = higher gdp =higher demand=even higher house prices. We will be back where we started, house price wise, only with a permanent loss of welfare from sprawl. More agglomeration is a good thing, and we should not be holding back a larger population in the SE. The best why to do this is for landowners to pay the full cost of their monopoly privileges. We'd get full use of what we've already got. As land values would fall(to zero theoretically) those who can best make use of it can afford to buy in without a massive debt first. We cannot have a full function housing market without a level playing field in land(good pun that;)). Get that first, then de-regulate planning after. De-regulate first will be disastrous. Economists that have written papers on planning and the effect on house prices, make some pretty extreme and unrealistic assumptions in order to prove their point. ie all green space can(and should) be built on. The unit cost of adding an extra floor to an existing building is the same as the unit cost of 100 new. etc, etc. If a three bedroom detached house costs £100,000 to build, if we scrap planning am I going to be able to buy that house any where in the UK for that price? Chelsea for example, or Mayfair? If not, why not? When supply constraints meets increased demand=higher monopoly rents.
In his article for the Guardian (21/5/14) Simon Jenkins says 'Councils should be set free to develop and manage their low-cost estates.' Actually Simon, Councils don't do that any more - ever heard of housing associations? So what about a proper Green Belt and Affordable Housing Tsar! The appointment of a respected impartial academic might allow the issues to be considered objectively. There just happens to be an e-petition at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/65441 which just needs 99,999 signatures in order to change the course of planning history.

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