07 February 2017

Will local communities help or hinder the measures proposed in today’s Housing White Paper? It’s up to the Government to decide, argues Chris Wajzer. 

While the focus of commentary on today’s Housing White Paper has been on the merits of the proposed policy measures, one thing is painfully clear: the rate of house building needs to increase dramatically.

And although the national interest in addressing housing affordability is apparent, the local consequences will be hard for some to bear. If the past is anything to go by, local communities – particularly those set to bear the brunt of growth – are likely to oppose such measures.

If the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, is serious about "major, long-lasting reform", then he and other ministers responsible must be prepared to engage with the public on these issues. There are at least three options worth examining:

We need a forum for deliberation that engages politicians, experts, interest groups and local communities.

The UK currently lacks forums for deliberation that can effectively engage politicians, experts, interest groups and local communities in major reform of the type proposed in the Housing White Paper. While the White Paper represents the start of a conversation, we need a platform for ongoing deliberation. 

In France, for example, the Commission Nationale du Débat Public – a state-funded, independent body – plays an important role in ensuring the public participates in decision-making processes about projects that have major effects on the environment and land use. This has given citizens from all walks of life an opportunity to investigate whether a project or reform proposal is worthwhile, to reflect on its objectives and main features, and to express their opinions.

Similarly, in the Netherlands, the Alders Table – a consultative body designed to formulate advice to government on plans for Schiphol airport – was successful in creating a forum for national and municipal governments, representatives of local communities, and parties involved in aviation to come together and discuss solutions to airport capacity.

We need independent institutions to make the case for reform and set out the basis for change.

While the UK has recently made some welcome reform to the institutional landscape, most importantly by establishing the National Infrastructure Commission, these institutions need time to develop credibility with the public. 

Australia’s Productivity Commission, an arm’s-length body established in 1998, is an example of a well-established institution that has been set-up to provide independent, evidence-based advice to government and the wider community on contentious reform issues, including housing. A key role of the commission is to promote public understanding of the trade-offs involved in different policy approaches. This helps pave the way for reform by raising public consciousness on specific issues, building evidence base and offering governments an opportunity to gauge, at arm’s length, the likely reactions of those affected by different policy approaches.

We need clearer compensation.

While government is not required to compensate local residents for any negative impacts of new housing development, the UK uses developer levies on new development to fund local neighbourhood improvements such as parks, roads and community facilities. But local residents must be able see a clear link between these levies and improvements to their neighbourhoods. Local governments must ensure that these improvements are clearly communicated to their communities.

As governments have learnt time and time again, major reform cannot be successful without eliciting the support of the public. In the absence of any such fora in the UK, we are likely to see continued to backlash to not only more housing development, but also to other important economic infrastructure such as roads, rail, airports, water treatment and electricity.

Comments

I'm with you up to the last point – but I'm not sure of the case for clearer compensation. There's an extensive literature about the commodification of social goods leading to sub-optimal outcomes. House building should in general be a benefit to communities, particularly for families who are concerned about where (and whether) their children will be able to buy their own homes in the future. Housing – and a housing market that works for everyone – are obvious social goods.

In that context, it is right that there is some nervousness around turning local house building into an explicit transaction between developers and local communities. Once communities see it as their right to charge developers for the right to build in their area, not only might this see developers' costs increasing (adding to the pressures they already face in the UK from extraordinarily high land costs), but it also may well lead communities to view house building less as a social good, and more as a transaction from which to extract financial gains.

The Government at the moment are walking the difficult tightrope between increasing the acceptability of greater house building, while also encouraging house builders to build more. The answer to the former is contained in your first two points – better community dialogue about the benefits and trade-offs associated with housebuilding, and the feeling that as a resident and a citizen you might have a say about how your community develops. The answer to the latter is addressing the chronic under-supply of land, and introducing disruption into a stagnant market of volume house builders whose business models are built on restricting supply. Compensation is a distraction that helps with neither.

I want to emphasise Permalink's comment. Improve housing supply by..."addressing the chronic under-supply of land" and disrupt the monopoly of "volume house builders whose business models are built on restricting supply". I would happily build my own modest modular home, to suit my own limited budget, perhaps up to £50,000, if the various levels of government would allow me to do this. I wouldn't be dependent on government or large housing developers or bankers. Why not devolve the problem? Let people house themselves.

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