Planning policies that brought flood misery

Article by Richard Wellings in the Yorkshire Post

TIGHTER planning and building regulations are at the forefront of the Government's efforts to tackle global warming.

New homes must adhere to strict insulation standards and they must be packed closely together, both to economise on land and to encourage public transport use.

On some schemes, councils restrict the number of parking spaces to discourage car ownership. Moreover, a high proportion of new houses are built on brownfield sites, often reclaimed from industrial uses.

Such measures enjoy widespread support across the major political parties. Yet the negative environmental effects of these policies are substantial, and there are far more efficient ways of limiting carbon emissions. As the Government proposes to build three million homes by 2020, it is critical it looks again at its policies on how and where new houses are built.

Severe problems are caused by the locations that developers are being forced to build on. Many brownfield sites are particularly vulnerable to flooding – as disastrously demonstrated in recent weeks.

Traditional industries clustered in flood plains to take advantage of flat land and easy access to canals and railways. Given the high costs, it seems unlikely that such locations would have been redeveloped without generous government grants and restrictions on building on more suitable greenfield sites.

Planning policies must therefore take part of the blame for the scale of the flood damage.

And there are other risks facing property owners. One new development near Leeds is squeezed in between a busy dual-carriageway and a railway line. It also sits underneath a run of electricity pylons. Unfortunately, such substandard sites are all too common thanks to current planning policies.

High density housing also has negative consequences. Small gaps between homes mean that nuisance from neighbours is more likely. Everyday annoyances such as screaming children, loud music and unpleasant cooking smells are far more intense when households live cheek by jowl.

While housing in other developed countries has been gradually improving over the last few decades, this has hardly been the case in the UK. Regulations mean that Britain's new homes are now the smallest in Western Europe. They are probably smaller now than they were in the 1930s when the country was only a quarter as rich.

It is also notable that the planners have severely limited the size of gardens in new developments. This doesn't seem sensible in the light of government exhortations that children should play more sport. In many new developments there simply isn't room for the games of football and cricket that helped ensure physical fitness in previous generations.

In locations where new private developments border older council estates, such as Sunnyside in Rotherham, the contrast is particularly marked. The council houses, many of them occupied free of charge through the housing benefit system, often have larger gardens than the new private homes.

Many council tenants are also benefiting from the Government's lavish Decent Homes initiative. They are getting brand new kitchens, bathrooms, central heating systems and double glazing.

Meanwhile, their owner-occupier neighbours are working hard to pay expensive mortgages to obtain the same facilities, as well as subsidising the council tenants through their taxes.

This policy undermines the Government's stated aim of providing incentives for people to move away from welfare dependency and into work.

There is therefore a strong economic and environmental case for liberalising planning and building regulations. Allowing developers to build larger new houses on more spacious plots would help ensure that today's younger generation can enjoy the same standard of housing as their parents.

While liberalisation would involve using more greenfield sites, this is preferable to cramming more houses into urban areas and making our cities more congested, with less and less open space.

The environment of homeowners would also be dramatically improved. Lower densities would reduce the impact of neighbourhood nuisances and facilitate the large gardens that are ideal for family life.

The development of poor quality brownfield sites next to rivers at risk of flooding as well as roads, railways or crime-ridden social housing estates would no longer be necessary. Britons could enjoy the high quality of housing that is taken for granted in other industrialised nations.

If the Government wants to reduce carbon emissions, it should tackle them directly rather than imposing complex and expensive regulations on housing and other sectors.

There are effective ways to reduce carbon emissions while actually benefiting the economy. These include reducing power consumption within the public sector, raising VAT on domestic fuel to the standard rate (with compensatory tax cuts elsewhere) and reducing foreign aid when it causes deforestation. Such measures would be far more effective than cramming homeowners into small houses on tiny plots.

Economists have known for years that regulation is an inefficient and often counterproductive way of achieving a given objective. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats, planners and politicians make their living from regulation – at the expense of the rest of us.

Richard Wellings is Deputy Editorial Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs

On the planning system:

Liberating the Land: The Case for Private Land-Use Planning by Mark Pennington

By the same author:

Why recycling isn't really saving the planet by Richard Wellings

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