In 2012 I started a business aiming to rent six buildings. Instead, for three years four of them stood empty. This was because the district council’s “countryside plan” required, regardless of what was possible, the continuation of commercial use permissions for reasons of “sustainability.” Eventually, the councillors on the planning committee overruled their planning officers. After his defeat the presiding planning officer declared that by the committee’s decision “democracy had been served”. Democracy would have been better served if twelve house-years of use had not been wasted in the first place.
My new business (although it did survive) was buried alive. I accuse an Act of Parliament of being the attempted murderer, namely, The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. This was a product of the UK’s first Labour government. It is therefore not surprising that it exemplifies a vain belief in Soviet style planning.
In many cases the economic thing to do with a building whose use is redundant (and can’t be changed because of planning) is to knock it down. This is because the owner will lose money on the vacant building to taxes (increased during the vacancy) and maintenance.
Eric Pickles, former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, tinkered with planning arbitrarily. Mr. Pickles allowed buildings with the office use-class to convert to residential use. But this good measure was rendered half-hearted by not being extended to all other (non polluting) commercial use-classes or, indeed, all offices. Moreover, to exercise this right you still have to submit a form, pay circa 80 pounds and know that although the Picklesian right is “permitted” it can be denied.
I call on UKIP to advocate repeal of the Soviet style Town and Country Planning Act and allow actions for damages (tort) by way of a replacement.
Reliance on tort would be efficient because it would allow small land use changes to proceed without further ado. This is because, unlike planning officers, not many citizens would seek prohibitory injunctions against you for painting a union jack on your front door if they had to pay to do so. The rules should not be simplified because they are like a hydra whose heads regenerate. Better to wipe the slate clean.
Reliance on tort would be fair because big developers, including the government to take a swipe at that white hippopotamus HS2, would have to compensate people for damage. It would also be democratic because the real cost to others of, say, your kitchen extension would be negotiated between the parties with most interest in the matter and by the body of case law that would arise when, and if, these negotiations became adversarial.
My proposal raises issues of access to justice. Perhaps part of the solution could be class actions (against large scale developers). It might be that compulsory mediation, with only appealed cases going to court, could reduce costs.
It could be argued that I am dodging the question of how to preserve beauty in a land-use ecology characterised by every woman for herself. I would say, however, that if people (even if they are Barratt our biggest home builder) are left to their own devices they are more likely to produce the magical (even if some will produce the revolting) than if someone is looking over their shoulder trying to ensure that they do.
The vast majority of houses considered beautiful enough to preserve by listing orders pre-date the planning system. Houses built since 1947 are characterized by dull uniformity. This is due partly to building regulations and construction technology but our blander urban environments are also indebted to planning law. It has been suggested that listed buildings and the green belt best be exempted from such a system as I propose and they could be.
My proposal certainly raises questions of detail. For example, should it be possible to take action against a developer before they act (which would require a duty on the developer to inform) or is it better to allow the developer to act first? Probably the former since the change I propose would still be more efficient, even with a duty to inform, than the system we have now.
This is a proposal to remove coercion bearing upon most UK households (since circa 57% of people belong to households that own their own property) but it is not a proposal to marginalize those who own no property. A more efficient and freer land economy will be one with more, including less expensive, rental opportunities for those who do not own.
In their 2010 report for the Department of Communities and Local Government, Doctors Hilber and Vermuelen calculate that 20% of the price of a building is a function of builders being constrained by the planning system. I propose a less constrained system. We could not expect the repeal for tort to bring house prices down by 20% but we could expect a fall of, say, 12.5%. In the case the Town and Country Planning Act were repealed it would make sense to limit the new system to new developments.
The dominant narrative says ours are overcrowded islands. Actually the number of houses per person in the UK has never been higher (1:2.6 in 2015 up from 1:3.5 in 1965) than it is today. In our state capitalist system, because of planning law, cheap borrowing and capital gains tax exemptions, house prices will continue to soar high above what a free market would permit, regardless of the population and buildings stock. This does not mean that the population to buildings ratio is irrelevant to house prices but it means this is just one factor among four.
If the government built 400,000 houses it would cost the public purse, say, 30 billion pounds. As it is the Conservative government plans to spend £1.8 billion per year (presumably to build about 24,000 homes annually) until 2020. But if, instead, we repeal the Town and Country Planning Act we could expect to see 400,000 new residences created, at no cost whatsoever to tax payers, from the circa 700,000 empty buildings, (0.25 million long term unused houses and 0.45 million long term unused commercial buildings) in the UK.
Let’s allow those most engaged with land or a building to decide for themselves what is and is not beautiful, and/or profitable to do, subject to the right of those affected by change of land use to take tort action.
In the system I propose change would be most rapid where the greatest profit, or least injury to others or both lay.
Some disagreement with my proposal will come from people who resent the fact that there is private property at all and wrongly believe that disposing of your own property as you see fit is a bad thing rather than a good without which our civilisation would become bankrupt. If you choose to do something with your property that I do not like and the state acts against you on my behalf this is an infantile alternative to you and I, if I have a real interest, working it out between ourselves.
Due to planning being one of the principal activities of district and unitary councils my proposal would open the door to reducing district and unitary government spending by, perhaps, £1 billion, or circa 4%, per year.
Let us set property free of the zombie planners’ joy in chewing the life out of the land economy. The chomping clomping Town and Country Planning Act was a crime in 1947. To allow it to carry on will be an atrocity.