When the best housing is the enemy of any homes at all

Why campaigns to stop houses being built in the ‘wrong’ place, often prevent houses being built anywhere.

So yesterday I posted about why I’m uneasy with the propensity of local Lib Dem parties to campaign against proposed housing developments. This post wound up circulating rather further than I’d expected. It was retweeted by among others the Head of Policy at the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Group Land and Planning Director for Barratt Developments!

However, it did garner one response I thought deserved more than a 140 character reply:

Now this is an argument I have a lot of sympathy for – I’ve helped Neil campaign against ‘specific housing sites’ before! – and it’s theoretically sound. In a given case it may be that one could build the same number of homes in an alternative location and that doing so would produce fewer negative externalities. However, in practice I would only want to apply this argument to the most egregious proposed developments.

The reason for this is that I suspect that very often what will happen is that preventing houses being built in a sub-optimal location will not mean they get built in a better one. Rather they not be built at all. This could happen for any number of reasons. For example, it may well be that having marched their financiers up the hill for a project that then failed, the developers can’t get them to do it again. However, the most likely problem is that in the absence of a clear way to establish what is the ‘right’ place to build something, there will almost always be a strong local coalition which considers a given location to the be the ‘wrong’ one.

Let me use an illustration from my own time as a councillor in Oxford. The City Council’s preferred option for building new homes was an urban extension to the South of the city. This aroused the opposition of those living in the neighbouring rural areas and the then leader of the Conservative County Council took the view that if “there is an argument for some changes to Oxford’s Green Belt, it should be to the north of the City.” With a change in government the arguments against building to the south of the city eventually prevailed. When attention did eventually shift to building to the north of the city a far smaller number of homes were proposed and this development likewise proved controversial.

So I take the point but would want to apply it sparingly. Given the extent of the housing crisis we face, I’m inclined to take new homes in less than ideal places over waiting for houses in a better place which may never arrive.

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2 thoughts on “When the best housing is the enemy of any homes at all

  1. I agree that there is a danger this can happen. But it doesn’t have to, and in my experience usually doesn’t.

    Take our current campaign against the proposal to build about 1,500 houses on Green Belt sites in the Vale. Stopping those sites going forward (where no developers have expended any resources yet) does not stop the other 19,000 houses proposed in the draft Local Plan going ahead. Other than a particular site which is in an AONB there has been little serious opposition to those 19,000. (Equivalent to a 38% increase in the number of houses, as it happens.)

    19,000 houses will never get built, of course, because that is way more than can feasibly be built in one district in 15 years.

    The problem with the Oxford City obsession with building on one particular site in South Oxon is that Labour are actually more interested in blaming the Tories than finding alternatives. Their willingness to stop the redevelopment of the Greyhound Stadium being a case in point.

    It is also important to distinguish between campaigning on potential housing sites during the Local Plan process and campaigning on actual planning proposals. The two are different. In the Vale’s case I am absolutely certain that getting these specific sites removed from the Local Plan will not result in there being any fewer actual houses in 15 years time. I’m equally confident that while there will be many thousands of new houses built in the Vale in the next 15 years, it won’t be anywhere near 19 thousand.

  2. I’m still really surprised there isn’t more pressure to *replace* existing low-density housing in poor condition with higher-density housing. Central Oxford and other historic areas will always be an issue, but there are plenty of parts of town further out where run-down housing could be replaced even by four-storey flats and still massively increase the amount of accommodation available. The same is even more true in London. However, the preferred solution always seems to be just building outwards, which often means not at all.

    In fairness, the fact that developers all want to build luxury 4-bed houses with gardens and two garages has a lot to do with this. The margins on high-density housing on brownfield sites are undoubtedly smaller, which is why the nation should be building them if (as usual) private enterprise aren’t up to the job.

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