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There is only one body that could manage UK land

Paul Finch
  • 1 Comment

The Crown Estate could be responsible for the disposal of land, says Paul Finch

Housebuilder Tony Pidgley has caused a stir by suggesting that a government organisation should be in control of development land, and that society as a whole should benefit from the uplift in value when planning permissions are granted, at least in respect of housing development.

His point is that housebuilders should be able to make their money from doing what they do, not from hoarding land to increase its value. Actually, according to the two most extensive analyses of this question, the housebuilding industry was given a clean bill of health; in general, the desire is to build and sell as rapidly as the market demands (dependent of course on mortgage finance). If land is held, it is because of a slowdown in demand.

The commentator Peter Bill has covered this subject extensively, during a career that involved working as a QS for a volume housebuilder before moving into construction and property journalism. He has shown, conclusively to my mind, that it is not the planning system or Building Regulations that lie behind our current shortage, but the failure of the political class to support the necessary level of public-sector construction that would end the madness of relying on the private sector for building out a social programme.

The huge increases in land cost that occur following housing permissions is a major issue, Bill says. The more builders have to pay for land, the greater the pressure to reduce construction costs, because what people can afford has nothing to do with land price. Quality and space standards take a hit – though not as much of a hit as in the disgusting permitted development scheme in Haringey where units are believed to be as small as 16m². (Message to architects: sometimes your duty as a professional is to tell a client that what they are doing is not acceptable and refuse the commission.)

But back to land. Just suppose a government agency had vested in it rights to land suitable for housing development, and its task in life was to dispose of the land at a price that would not cripple housebuilders, large or small, where the profit made could be put to good use and where the quality of what was proposed would determine which builder bought at a reasonable price.

This pubilc organisation could provide a third way between our current system and state control

There is one body that, gargantuan task though it might be, could take on such a job. I refer to The Crown Estate. Although some of its revenues are used to support the monarchy, most are not. This public organisation could provide a third way between our current unbalanced system and the sort of state control envisaged but abandoned by Labour via its Community Land Act of the 1970s.

The landowners who benefit when planners draw boundaries showing where they want housing to go are not large numerically. There would be few votes sacrificed were the Pidgley proposal brought into being.

A man of integrity

We will all miss Ted Cullinan. He brought life and laughter into the room; he drew like a dream; and he was prepared to engage in vigorous debate without generating rancour. 

Under Paul Hyett’s RIBA presidency, the AJ relaunched the old RIBA conference as a joint exercise. Who should we invite as our keynote speaker? No competition. Ted did his usual fascinating talk-and-draw presentation, covering not just architecture, but construction, health and safety and other fashionable fads of the day with his distinctive comic-style images.

I enjoyed joining forces with him at occasional events organised by Prince Charles’s architecture school, flying a flag for the contemporary. My deep regret is that Ted never got the knighthood he richly deserved. 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • An interesting idea that the Crown Estate might be an appropriate body to safeguard the fair and equitable pricing of land released for residential development.
    This organisation's role would have to be very carefully specified, given its behaviour over 'harvesting' income from users of the foreshore on the West coast of Scotland.
    This became a political hot potato a few decades ago when people in coastal communities suddenly found themselves being charged for keeping their boats in front of their houses, as their ancestors had done since time immemorial.
    The knowledge that the Crown Estates income went to the Treasury, and was thus for the 'common good' - in theory at least (Garden Bridge, anyone?) - didn't really defuse the initial outrage, and has probably helped the cause of Scottish independence flourish.

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