Ian Abley No Work Too Small - photograph by Ian Abley
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1. 'Clegg defends housing benefit cut', 24 October 2010, BBC News, posted on

2. Ross Hawkins, 'Housing benefit cuts: Who loses out?', 27 October 2010, BBC News, posted on

3. Ian Abley, 'Deluded Housing Minister John Healey celebrates the 1909 Planning Act', 10 December 2009, posted here

4. National Housing and Planning Advice Unit presentation

5. National Housing Federation campaign microsite, Don't mention the housing crisis, posted here

6. Ian Abley, 'Planning Gain is a loss', 1 January 2010, posted here

7. 'Federation condemns capital budget cut of 60% – but welcomes increased flexibility', 27 October 2010, National Housing Federation, posted on

250 New Towns - The club for people with big plans to build

Where to build?100,000 homes a year is all that will be built in Britain unless we organise against the Town and Country planning systemThe regression of Green Capitalism

Britain can't so easily stop the Dependency Culture

The housing question is currently reduced to an argument about state subsidy, some calling for rental housing to be built with public funds, and others calling for the removal of some of the housing benefits being paid to Britain's lowest paid. This is a pantomime of reformist positions.

Appearing on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said there were no '... pain-free alternatives', and he found that morally difficult. (1) While even the anachronistic advocates of council housing say there is not the public money to build any number of them, they are outnumbered by the enthusiasts for welfare reforms in all parties, keen to address the Dependency Culture that is supposed to result from living on housing benefit payments. The Prime Minister David Cameron says it is unfair that benefit claimants can live in properties other workers could only dream of. (2) Fairness demands some pain.

The popular anxiety about inflicting more economic pain on the lowest paid is sickening enough, but the idea that the lowest paid in need of housing benefits are having it too easy as a burden on the state inverts the relationship of power. It is not the low paid that have conspired in queues for housing benefit to make the housing market unaffordable in an effort to obtain tax-payer's money. Housing benefit is no income to the low paid. It is rather the government that operates a planning system that sustains a whole host of dependencies, many of which benefit the better off, and some that the state is unwilling to do without.

Let's be clear. We are all burdened by the mess the state has made of housing provision. The planning of the production of new housing is publicly controlled. No government will dare to entertain the ending of the 1947 nationalisation of development rights. No government will set private capital free to build accommodation for rent to working people at up to super-densities of 150 homes a hectare in urban locations. No government will let locals in suburban areas spontaneously densify their neighbourhood. No government will set farmers free on the fringes of every town to sell their land for small builders to build flats, houses with gardens, and bungalows. To end the containment of the nationalisation of development rights will expose greater dependencies.

Blaming those on housing benefits is an evasion. Britain has a prosperous and pervasive Dependency Culture. It is the ignored dependency of the property owning majority on the inflated value of the property market that is sustained by the planning system. This is the dependency of:

  • the members of the Council of Mortgage Lenders - on the security that the inflated housing market provides for the £1.2 trillion fund of existing mortgage lending, and the little new lending being added annually at historically low rates of interest
  • the majority of home owners - on mortgage equity withdrawal as a means of augmenting low household incomes, which makes the financial aspect of home ownership more important than the utility of dilapidating, uncomfortable, and overcrowded homes
  • the land owners with planning prospects - where the planning system strengthens the positional value of the location of the land they own by preventing building on land elsewhere
  • the local authorities - on extracting a proportion of the planning gain from planning approvals given to speculative developers
  • the speculative developers - on keeping a proportion of the planning gain from planning approvals in negotiation with planners and land owners; which removes much of the risk in the process
  • the farmers - on environmental and agricultural subsidies when they are denied the prospect of planning gain through planning approval; while farmers don't really object to this lack of freedom
  • the major contractors - capable of dealing with planners and developers over the bar to entry into the property market that the 1947 legislation presents to smaller contractors, forcing them to become sub-contractors, or out of the construction industry
  • the contract based construction industry as a whole - on the uncertainties of locally delegated planning processes, which frustrate the manufacture of buildings as ever more complete products, and sustain construction as a project based process
  • the interchangeable "teams" of design consultants, with architects principal among them - on the mythology that every site is too different to be developed from increasingly sophisticated pattern books of building products, giving rise to an obscurantist professional and academic interest in urban design, or "place"
  • the civic amenity, preservation, conservation, and environmental groups - on the self-serving argument that without the intervention of planners or the third party lobbyists that they have to consult all unique local character in townscape or landscape would be lost to uniformity and repetition
  • the sector of middle class housing managers - on the entrapment of non-home owners in state funded or charitable rental housing, because the aspirational section of the working population is not free to take the initiative to house themselves on cheap land by borrowing as little finance as is necessary
  • the novel kinds of equity share landlords - on the sale of a small percentage of the property value to those stuck in the social rental sector who want to have some small financial stake in the inflating property market, usually with onerous conditions of "good behaviour" on the tenancy favourable to the landlord; the equity share relieving the landlord of much of the cost of construction
  • the smug landlords enjoying local gentrification - on high rents secure in the knowledge that housing demand is unmet by supply, as evident in overcrowding; public and private sector landlords alike, sometimes with tenants subsidised by benefit payments
  • the property portfolio landlords - on the appreciation of the resale value of their dilapidating building assets, sometimes after regeneration funding has been expended to gentrify an area with public funding; also loved by urban renewal consultants
  • the remnant of Britain’s Labour movement - on the strategy of council house building to make a fetish of tenure, appealing to the electorate with reformist notions of a "fair" Britain, when the working public understandably wants to be free of any landlord
  • the Coalition reformists - on the mistaken belief that the planning system can ever be rendered locally democratic when development requires capital expenditure; “Localism” is just another sleight of hand, like promising "A Decent Home for All"
  • the Town and Country Planning Association - on bankrupted ideas from the past; Garden City ideals were reinvented in the post-war New Towns programme (41 planned – 33 built) as a reaction against the inter-war garden suburb, rejected as sprawl
  • the lobbyists - on the rhetoric of creating sustainability or community that injects the illusion of a contest into the planning system run by members of the Royal Town Planning Institute; the Eco-Towns being the best failed example (57 planned – 0 built)
  • the political class at Westminster - on the professional talk of planning sustainability or community, which bolsters their varied and variable sense of public purpose; "Big Society" politicians are desperate to see fresh signs of social cohesion in a fragmented population sceptical of political motives in general
  • the City of London - on the punitive idea of the "inevitability" of cuts in welfare payments such as housing benefit, even while it is expected that Treasury Quantative Easing and the temporary Bank nationalisations are likely to turn a profit for government
  • the nationalists - on the popular illusion now promoted by the Coalition that “we’re all in this together”, acutely expressed in the notion that immigrants, regardless of colour, threaten the presupposed collaboration between employers and employees
  • the employers - on a small pool of subsidised employees reliant on welfare benefits, and on the passive acceptance amongst all other employees that they must pay a greater proportion of their low income in high rent or hefty mortgage payments

This range of perfectly respectable British dependencies can be better expressed, and it is not an exhaustive list. You get the point...

NHPAU Map of residential land values per hectareClearly, Britain's problems are not the fault of the worst paid of the working class claiming housing benefits. The forced reliance on housing benefits is a trap. The potential developmental dynamic of Britain's workforce is stifled by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Planning is a wider state of dependency. Many Architects often express hatred of the frustrating dependency culture of the repeatedly reformed post-war planning system, but are institutionally too scared to work without it. The first planning legislation in 1909 tackled slum landlords, but had no power to encourage the building of better housing. (3) In 1947 planners were empowered to rebuild war-torn Britain. Now the planning system works well to sustain the inflated property market in which developers, landlords and home owners operate. Nobody wants to be on benefits. Everyone wants to be making money from property.

Government will not see the property market as a general dependency.

NHPAU Map of residential land values per hectare

Map of residential land price per hectare, Source: NHPAU (4)

The 1947 legal innovation is not the continuation of the ineffective 1909 planning Act. It is all too effective as legislation. Now government denies development rights to everyone, reallocating planning approvals to those who fit some kind of changeable plan, and land owners have no legal alternative to the negotiation over "planning gain". This is hopeless.

Planners who are members of the Royal Town Planning Institute would still be needed without their 1947 powers. They would just be powerless to stop much needed development. With their 1947 development control powers intact RTPI members seem unable to encourage development.

Farmers don't seem to complain enough that it is they who own most of the land on the map. If they could sell a hectare every now and then for house building they might be better able to pay off the mortgages on the remainder of their farms. They could throw off their dependency on bank lending and public payments to look after the countryside.

The map of England is instead being planned to suit the Council of Mortgage Lenders. Government depends on that financialised culture.

click here for the National Housing Federation's campaign website - Don't mention the housing crisis

The National Housing Federation says it’s time for every Member of Parliament in the country to mention the housing crisis and urge the Government to safeguard the provision of social rented and affordable homes. (5) However it is Government that controls the planning system which inflates the price of even poor quality building land allocated for development. This has frustrated house building while Government has extracted a small supply of social rented and affordable homes from a local negotiation over "planning gain". (6) The NHF want to mention the housing crisis, but look to Members of Parliament. Instead, we want to clearly recognise Government itself as the obstacle to building.

What to do, when the middle class members of organisations like the NHF, uneasy with benefit cuts, will not see their own dependency?

Obviously we can avoid blaming the poorest in society for a trap that is not of their choosing, and properly accuse British capital interests for being culturally dependent. The City prefers to lend money on the strength of house price inflation rather than to build new. But pointing that out is not enough when the Coalition goes effectively unchallenged on the inevitability of cuts in benefits, and the obstruction of immigrants.

This "Big Society" Coalition is socially divisive, and we need to establish a pro-development organisation to take them on directly. The Next Labour Party will be no less divisive than New Labour, or Old Labour proved to be. The predictable response by the NHF working with Shelter and the Chartered Institute of Housing has been to establish a Housing Futures Commission, to look at the impact of the austerity programme on the housing market. The NHF says rents will be increased to compensate for a proposed 60% cut in central government house building budgets. Many poor tenants would '... be heavily dependent on housing benefit to cover the extra costs. Those gaining work would see their housing benefit payments fall – meaning they would be forced to pay even more from their own pockets, acting as a powerful disincentive to get a job.' (7) The housing question requires a better answer than the promotion by social landlords of more dependency on state funded rental housing as the fairer way to avoid deepening present housing benefit dependencies.

250 New Towns - The club for people with big plans to buildThe 250 New Towns Club is our way to investigate the appetite in Britain for building more freely. The club is an open invitation to enthusiasts for planning with the intention of expanding and advancing the construction industry, and a rebuttal to all those who see planning as a means to frustrate population growth. The only criteria for club membership is the shared ambition to be building at least 500,000 new homes a year.

Where is up to us...

Britain can't easily stop the Dependency Culture by inflicting pain on those paid housing benefits. It will not be fair, but Britain's working and middle class home owning majority will, sometime, have live in a world where there is no national denial of development rights by which government can regulate the value of land allocated a prospect of planning approval.

The return of a freehold right to build should render the housing market more affordable for many, but it will scare the CML. Don't expect the Coalition government of Cameron and Clegg to consider that alternative.

We need to get busy sharing realisable dreams of a better life that are meant to be shared with immigrants.

Cosmopolitans who, like us, are trying to get on.

Ian Abley 31.10.2010

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