Shaun Spiers, until recently Chief Executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, has written a fascinating, profoundly significant, and at times deeply frustrating book.
Reading How to build houses and save the countryside filled me with excitement and hope. But occasionally I had the urge to hurl it at the wall.
It offers compulsive insights into why the opposite sides of the debate on housing – as in so many others – continue to talk past each other, and hints at the interesting challenges for CPRE in the contrast between its “left-leaning” London staff and the Shire Tory component of its members.
For Spiers, beauty, quality and localism need to be at the heart of the housing debate. Building on those with CPRE’s support might help bring about the end of the housing crisis.
He starts with an astonishing quote from Patrick Abercrombie, first Secretary and later Chair of CPRE:
There is no need to stem the inborn desire of the Englishman to live in the country or to have a garden. It should be possible for a stretch of country to absorb a large amount of building without losing its natural character or at any rate without destroying its beauty, though its character may be modified. […]
It should be possible for a just balance to be struck between conservation and development: that certain parts must be preserved intact and inviolate but that others can, after suffering a change, bring forth something new but beautiful, provided a conscious effort is made.
Spiers goes on to recognize that by the time he had joined CPRE, “it was clear that this pro-development spirit had been lost, together with any sense that development could be enhancing […] our local groups were opposing house building at a time when far too few homes were being built across England to keep up with population growth. Why was this? How did our country come to be so bad at getting homes built? And how did house building get to be so unpopular?”
Excellent question, although perhaps attempts to answer it should start with the periods when so much of our most beautiful heritage was built – by the Georgians, Victorians or Edwardians – and not after the Second World War, like most of the analysis.
If you want a good perspective on our housing crisis and think that improving the planning system may be one component of a way forward, then look back to before the modern planning system was created in 1947. The analyst Neal Hudson has shown that, since then, we have never got back to the net rate of growth in the number of homes achieved in the 1830s – before the railways! – let alone the vastly higher growth rate of the 1930s. History did not start in 1947. Nor should your housing graphs.
That is not to say that we should necessarily return to the pre-1947 free-for-all, even if that were achievable in a nation with a strong voting majority of risk-averse homeowners. But let’s at least be honest with ourselves about what changed.
Spiers’ book could also do without a sprinkling of assertions disputed by those doing serious scientific research. To claim that the housing market is the problem, not the planning system, while noting that the current house builder oligopoly does not have the will to build on the scale needed, is to neglect that it is mainly the current planning system that killed the small builders that Spiers rightly says we need to nurture. They built most of the privately-built homes in the 1930s, and a depressingly small fraction today.
It is perfectly possible to say that we need better planning, acknowledging many flaws in what and how things are built today, without calling for wholesale abolition. Blind defence of the planning system as it stands is no more helpful than unachievable calls for its total abolition. The question is what we can do to make it better.
There are other controversies. On the claim that “there is a thin line between saying ‘we need to build where people want to live’ and stoking demand in those places”, one hardly knows where to begin.
Yes, you will stoke the agglomeration and network effects if you create bigger cities by allowing more well-designed homes in high-wage, highly productive places with excellent job and education opportunities. But you may actually slightly reduce wages in high-wage places due to increased labour supply, and any increased demand to live in those places caused by agglomeration effects is tiny compared to the amount by which you will make living in those cities more affordable and raise average wages across the country. Not to mention the social benefits from no longer unfairly pricing the disadvantaged out of the best life chances.
Many are happy to agree that cartels and monopolies are bad, but seem unable to apply that to cartels accidentally created by government. Robber barons extracting rents from monopolies in toll roads or steel are clearly a problem. But needless restrictions on the number of homes built, to the detriment of the poor, the young and society as a whole, are somehow apparently fine and costless, even if there are plenty of ways to build more homes while making both our cities and the countryside better.