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Yes, cut red tape - but we also need vision, ambition and a plan

Instead of building homes, the government is selling off our land, writes Christine Murray

The year 2012 is on track to have seen the least number of homes built since World War II. What is the government doing about it? Worse than nothing: social housing starts are down another five per cent year-on-year, according to Glenigan. Private house building is down too. And the housing shortage is just one ingredient in a toxic mix: unemployment is high, housing benefit numbers are rising by 10,000 people a month, and rental prices have rocketed 37 per cent over the past five years.

Ask David Cameron about getting Britain building, and he blames planning red tape. But developers are currently sitting on huge land banks, not because they can’t win planning permission for homes - in most instances they already have planning permission. They aren’t developing because house prices are low, financing for speculative building is scarce, and buyers can’t get a mortgage for off-plan developments.

If the government would like to encourage house building, it either needs to build housing itself, fund others to build it, or tax idle land to make sitting on it less appealing. Financial penalties for idle land are used in Europe and China - in China, you have to pay; in Europe, you lose funding. But it’s unlikely to happen here. I shared a panel at the Battle of Ideas this weekend with Daniel Moylan, aviation advisor to Boris Johnson and former chief of the London Legacy Development Corporation, who scoffed at the idea, adding ‘private landowners must be allowed to do what they want with their land’ (precisely why no housing is being built).

So why doesn’t the government become a developer? This week, housing minister Mark Prisk told Radio 4’s Today programme that the government will continue to sell off its idle plots, bragging that ‘enough land for 33,000 houses is now sold.’ Well, shame on you, Prisk, when you could have built 33,000 houses, funded by state-owned banks - our banks - to be inhabited by housing association tenants paying rent - our money - into the pockets of private landlords.

The sell-off of public land is a good example of the government’s lack of business nous. Architects could have been commissioned to win planning for mixed-use housing schemes for these plots, instantly increasing their value. The government could then have sold the plots at a higher price, or tendered them to contractor-developer partners on condition that construction is carried out within a set timeframe and to their specifications. Instead, they are selling off the country’s assets - our land - at a low price, to no public benefit.

In the AJ this week, we publish a remarkable public-private partnership success story: Clapham One, designed by Studio Egret West and developed by Cathedral, which was given the land by Lambeth free of charge on the condition that it built a library, medical centre, leisure centre and affordable units as part of the deal. The architect and developer were instrumental in teasing out this opportunity from the stakeholders. Practices should take note and cultivate these skills.

We once hoped Localism would unlock this kind of deal-making. But cash-strapped and staff-poor local authorities too often use planning as a style-making process, enforcing the shape of a building or the colour of its roof, rather than ensuring the public benefit from private profit. Architects are well placed to find solutions. Take airports, for example: five practices have drawn up potential masterplans for four of London’s. But the government itself has deferred its decision on airport capacity until after the election in 2015.

It’s all very well to cut planning red tape, but it must be done in tandem with vision, ambition and a plan. For the benefit of the most vulnerable in our society, it’s time to give up on laissez-faire. The private sector will take care of itself. Just who is looking after us?

christine.murray@emap.com

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