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.