Housing: An alternative history – Part 4

Kristian Niemietz

August 24, 2023

…continued from part 3

In the summer of 2014, the Housing Commission presents a series of proposals, oven-ready to be turned into law.

The first one is to grant automatic planning permission for medium-density development on greenbelt farmland within an 800m radius around commuter stations. Greenbelt land that is genuinely green, such as National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is exempt. A 20% levy on the planning gain (the uplift in the value of the land) is supposed to fund the additional infrastructure needs.

Cameron does not find a majority for this proposal within his own government coalition, but he finds out that enough Labour MPs are prepared to back it under the condition that the new areas contain high proportions of social housing, council housing, and affordable (i.e. below-market rate) housing. They also demand that a share of the new housing should be reserved for NHS workers and teachers. Cameron is happy to make those concessions to secure his majority. The project goes full steam ahead.

The Commission also comes up with a proposal called “Street Votes”, under which entire streets can opt out of the planning system, and grant themselves planning permission for virtually anything they like if (and only if) a qualified majority of its residents so desire. Luckily for Cameron, most of the more NIMBY-minded MPs are convinced – wrongly, as it will later turn out – that very few streets will actually make use of this, so they vote it through.

The Commission’s third major proposal is to grant automatic planning permission for golf courses and other recreational open spaces that are not open to the general public. This is a nakedly populist proposal. Cameron knows that most MPs secretly hate it. But the optics of objecting to it are terrible: opponents will be accused of prioritising the hobbies of posh toffs over the housing needs of ordinary people. Cameron becomes an unlikely class warrior.

What this proposal does, in practice, is simply to raise the opportunity cost of golfing. Golf clubs do not need to make use of the development rights they are given, but they know that if they continue to use the land for golfing, they are missing out on the millions they could make by selling the land to a developer.

The fourth proposal is a more long-term one: a resumption of the “New Towns” programme of the postwar years, with some modifications. The Commission already worked out some suitable sites for ten new New Towns, and since they are all at some distance to existing larger settlements, NIMBY resistance is weak.

The fifth proposal is one that Cameron himself helped to incubate: it is essentially what he remembers from the 2020 “Jenrick plan” from his timeline. The idea is to turn a discretionary planning system into a rules-based zoning system. Stripped off the urban planning jargon, what this means is that, rather than having a system where developers, residents and planning authorities haggle over every individual planning application, planning authorities instead work out in advance what can be built where. They designate zones for high-density residential development, zones for low-density residential development, zones for mixed-use development, zones for commercial development, zones that are protected from development, and so on.

Compared to the current system, the new one gives residents a greater say over the type of development that takes place in their area. They can, for example, insist on very specific design codes. But it gives them less of a say over the total amount of development. They can shape development, but they cannot block it.

The plan also envisages, again, a 20% levy on the planning gain, to be retained in the local area. This should, in most cases, be sufficient to finance any additional infrastructure and other needs, and still leave enough change to act as an inducement to accepting more development.

There are a couple of smaller, less controversial policy changes, which are mostly about making it easier to accommodate population growth while making sure that existing residents share some of the economic gains associated with development.

As the 2015 General Election approaches, the number of housing starts begins to creep up. Britain is in the very early stages of a building boom, and construction companies go on a hiring spree. This has the fortunate side effect of taking the edge off the EU issue. With construction companies already suffering from shortages of building-related skills, complaints about Eastern European immigrants “stealing” British jobs seem strangely out of place. The word “Brexit” does not exist in this timeline. This does not mean that the underlying issue goes away, but it does lose some of its salience, at least for now. In the 2015 election campaign, housing plays a much greater role than in the EU.

This changes political dynamics. Cameron has alienated a lot of people, but he also wins some new supporters in unexpected quarters. He is still not what you would call “popular with young voters”: he will never speak at Glastonbury, and no crowd of young people will ever chant his name. But there is a growing recognition – often grudging – that, in their own way, Cameron and his allies are genuinely trying to improve the situation of younger people and lower-income earners.

Opposition leader Ed Miliband is not quite sure how to react to this new situation. He briefly tries to pander to the NIMBY vote, but quickly realises that this is an electoral cul-de-sac for him: the disgruntled NIMBYs who hate Cameron are concentrated in the demographic groups that are least likely to consider voting for Miliband. Miliband realises that he has a much better chance of trying to attract younger voters instead–but to do that, it is counterproductive to attack the one Cameron policy that those voters actually quite like. So he pivots from “Cameron wants to bulldoze the countryside” to “Cameron’s YIMBYism is fake – we are the real YIMBYs”.

This means that despite the numerical dominance of NIMBY voters, the YIMBY vote is actually much better represented in this election. At times, Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats try to out-YIMBY each other.

Unlike in the previous timeline, Cameron fails to secure an absolute majority: he has to renew his coalition with the Liberal Democrats for another five years. But he is not too sad about that: he remembers all too well how, last time, the 2015 election victory was a pyrrhic one.

With Brexit out of the way, he plans to spend the second half of the 2010s to see his housing boom through, and reap the rewards.

Continue to part 5…


Written by Kristian Niemietz

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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