21 September 2011

Why the left should support the new UK planning rules

Relaxing Britain’s planning rules will be good for growth, for the environment, and for social mobility.

The countryside lobby is selling a straw man. Developers generally don’t want to concrete over our beautiful rural countryside just for the sake of it. There is little value in building in the middle of nowhere. The most valuable place to build new commercial and residential properties is where prices are high – the wealthy and productive South-East – areas that are already developed. By increasing housing density in the South-East, we can allow more people to move there. More dense urban areas are more productive, as scale allows for greater economic diversity, and for new ideas to be freely shared.

New building will also bring down prices, allowing poorer people to live in productive areas. If we are serious about social mobility, we need to allow poor households the opportunity to live close to jobs in high productivity parts of the country (and without expensive government subsidies).

Finally, dense urban areas are better for the environment than small countryside towns, because in urban areas people walk, cycle, or take public transport rather than drive everywhere.

For once, this is a genuinely progressive policy from the Tories. The left should embrace it.

Sadly economic geography is tragically misunderstood by the public. But there is a pretty much a consensus from economists on this issue. Two great recent books by Ed Glaeser at Harvard and Ryan Avent of The Economist make the case for less planning regulation in the US. Henry Overman, Director of the Spatial Economics Research Centre at the LSE, argues that the changes in the UK do not go far enough.


How about a specific example for clarity? This is Oxford. The whole area to the South East of Oxford is pretty built up, from Cowley Road down to Blackbird Leys. Binsey, on the other hand, less than a mile North West of the train station (which gets you to London in 50 minutes), has a population of, er, 28 (at least it did in 2001).

I love the countryside. I really do. But the average value of rural land in Oxfordshire is £21k per ha. The average value of suburban land on the edge of Oxford is £4,000,000 per ha. It is utter madness to not build on Binsey.

The Labour government's Barker report led to outrage about "building over the green belt."

Here's a picture of the Green Belts in the UK. 

Would it really be so bad if we let some towns and cities like Oxford expand? Isn't there a bit of space left in Oxfordshire besides the thick ring around the town?



Yeah...... so Cynan in the comments posted the link to this Oxford flood plain map. Perhaps Binsey wasn't the best example in the world. And yet.... Christchurch still wanted to build there, presumably knowing about the flood plain. And.... Amsterdam? Or rather, the 25% of the entire Netherlands which is below sea level? 


Cynan Houghton said...

Homes built in Binsey would need to be measured in cubits. http://www.oxford.gov.uk/Direct/75395OxfordAreaFloodMap.pdf

Cynan Houghton said...

On the general point I tend to agree with you. A modest proposal: once a decade, bulldoze the lowest average performing college on the Norrington table (adjusted for the average household income (measured at matriculation) of its student body).

Lee Crawfurd said...

Oh. Yeah, that makes me look a little bit silly. But.... the Netherlands?........

Lee Crawfurd said...

An excellent proposal. I fully endorse. 

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Laura Gordon said...

Surely this is an opportunity for some innovative community resilience strategies, like building houses on stilts or on mounds to protect them from natural rainfall shocks?

Lee Crawfurd said...

Excellent idea. Let's get some experts from another continent to come and teach the locals how to be a community and generate some social capital.

Jock Coats said...

I had a bit of fun playing with Oxford too once: http://jockcoats.me/oxford_million_minds_bit_fun  Also, on the flood plain issue, I had a visit once from a couple of guys selling a system they have used in the Netherlands of building houses, and roads, in what amounts to concrete "hulls" that can rise and fall if flooding hits.  Very interesting.

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