Common Weal Policy continue our series of election briefings on housing, with researcher Leah Aaron looking at a major problem issue in the housing sector: land and the planning system
THE much-vaunted Scottish Land Reform Bill was a significant step forward in pulling the huge swathes of countryside currently in private ownership into the hands of local communities, but many feel it did not go far enough. Its failure to prevent land ownership via offshore tax havens, or to restrict the amount of land that one person can own, is symptomatic of a land and planning system that is fundamentally flawed.
The UK’s drastic housing shortage is exacerbated by the price of land- the value of an acre of land can increase tenfold when planning permission is granted, and has now increased to around PS600,000 an acre, according to Farmer’s Weekly. Thanks to a convoluted and poorly conceptualized planning framework, it can work to the benefit of investors and developers to buy land and then sit on it, allowing the market to drive prices up and ultimately making homes less affordable.
The 2014 Lyons Housing Review concluded that poor quality in the housing sector is a systematic market failure and partly a consequence of the high cost of land, squeezing the margins of housebuilders. High land costs pressure housebuilders to search for lower priced land, often outside of cities and towns and therefore detached from communities, rather than developing old “impaired” land.
The problem of land access is particularly severe for small businesses and self/custom built homes, leading to a housing sector with a high degree of market concentration.
In cities, development plans, used to determine where and how local government will concentrate its development over the proceeding term, have often been criticized for their shortsightedness, conservatism, and focus on private investment. Like many Northern cities in the 1990s, Glasgow’s attempt to reinvent itself as a cultural hub was rooted in attracting ‘creatives’ and reinvigorating shopping areas, creating ‘cultural quarters’ and encouraging a thriving consumer culture. Though undoubtedly successful in reinvigorating the area around Merchant City, the extent to which this ‘culture-led’ regeneration really improved the lives of people on lower incomes in the city is questionable.
“Though undoubtedly successful in reinvigorating the area around Merchant City, the extent to which this ‘culture-led’ regeneration really improved the lives of people on lower incomes in the city is questionable.”
Planning frameworks are often criticized for being undemocratic and failing to take account of their communities needs. Local government often struggles to balance the desires of the community with the need for sustainable economic growth and the historic preservation of place. In Edinburgh, the introduction of the statutory repairs scheme, to force tenants to carry out essential building repairs in tenement blocks, not only failed to gain traction but was the subject of a massive overcharging scandal in 2011.
The importance of infrastructure within the planning system cannot be overstated, and in Scotland an over-enthusiastic perspective on the car in the 1960s and 70s, as well as the deregulation of the buses in 1986, has led to a weak public transport system. What would in other countries be only a short commute on public transport to work is, in Scotland, hugely unreliable and often weather-dependent. This is especially relevant when you consider the new towns on the outskirts of the countries larger cities that are often incredibly badly served, such as Cumbernauld and Motherwell. In addition, poor public transportation hinders the development of new house building projects and in the longer term, increasing pollution.
“An overzealous embrace of the private sector in creating urban fabrics can result in poor design/build quality and the closure of essential services, as recently seen with the Edinburgh Schools’ PFI closure debacle.”
The planning systems’ end-goal of economic growth is unsustainable and ultimately bad for places, according to ‘The Bartlett’s School Of Planning’s ‘Ideas For A Better Planning System’. An overzealous embrace of the private sector in creating urban fabrics can result in poor design/build quality and the closure of essential services, as recently seen with the Edinburgh Schools’ PFI closure debacle. As private business and ownership steadily creeps into our communal spaces and the narrative of austerity continues to take hold we are less and less vocal about the need to plan for public spaces in community ownership, like libraries, leisure centres and public parks.
Democratize the planning system: There is no one better to decide the future of public spaces than local communities. We should investigate ways to democratize the planning system and get local people involved. This would not only serve to improve the places that we live but also highlight the importance of a well thought-out planning framework for day to day living
Prioritize communities, not profit We should fundamentally rethink our approach to the planning system. Instead of looking at it in such a confrontational way (trying to ‘force’ planning permission or ‘block’ development) we have to start prioritizing what people think is really important- schools, homes, places to socialize. We have to accept that more profit does not always equal a better quality of life.
Integrate transport and planning policy- We can achieve more through a joined-up holistic approach to our built environment. We could take examples from the Netherlands and Sweden into account, who made a point of putting the infrastructure in first in any new housing development. In 2016, this would include broadband.
Make land a key priority issue for government The Scottish Government and local authorities need to address the problem of high cost and limited access to land. A fully-fledge land assembly, access and use strategy is necessary. Options include (but are no means limited to) a land value tax or a tax on derelict land, de-coupling the development process from the actual land, setting targets on land supply, establishing a Land Delivery agency that works in association with social housebuilding.
QUESTIONS FOR CANDIDATES
– How will you change Scotland’s planning system?
– Is ‘creative hub’ regeneration practical, is it fair and if not, is there a way to revitalize our urban centres without creating bubbles for the few?
– What will your party do about the high cost and limited access to land in Scotland?