Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Green Belts under more threat

Town & Country Planning is one of those issues that is difficult for British libertarians. The British tend to romanticise the countryside and to be natural nimbies (i.e. to subscribe to the "Not In My Back Yard" school of development). Developers are seen as "bad guys" and so nostalgic is the nation that we have the highest proportion of people living in housing over 70 years old of (I believe) any nation in Europe. In other countries, a new house is as much more desirable than an old one as a new car is more desirable than an old banger. Not in Britain. The old stuff often commands a premium. This is a nation more in love with history than comfort.

The "Green Belt" is a sacred cow concept of urban planning in Britain. The green belt around London restricts the capital's expansion and ensures a "green lung" of open land to balance the dense development of the city. However, when combined with increasing demand to live in the city and other planning restrictions (and infrastructure shortages) which make it difficult to build more densely, it inevitably drives up prices. The government's response so far has been to compel developers to provide low cost housing on each development in return for being given planning permission to use their own land as they wish. In the private sector, this would be known as extortion. Of course governments live by extortion (aka tax) so they tend not to think in such terms. The low cost housing will eventually find its way into the market at high cost so this is only a short term fix.

The libertarian issue with planning policy is that it interferes with the use of people's property. If a community does not want a particular type of building on private land, it should have to buy the land to prevent it, so that the owner's rights are not intrefered with. Why should the value of your property be enhanced by your using the power of the State to depress the value of mine?

We are all so used to planning controls, however, that we tend to think of it as an increase in value when we get permission to develop, rather than a theft of value that our right to develop was removed by the State. So much have we bought into this thinking that Governments have been known to tax the increased value they "create" or "give" on granting planning consents! Twisted thinking indeed.

Britons live in a country that is largely empty. They tell themselves not, but maybe they should fly over it more! As for Scotland, the place is effectively deserted. The British population is crammed into small houses which are getting smaller on average because of more restrictive planning policies. Those policies are so restrictive (not more than 1.5 parking spaces per dwelling) that there are reports of these little houses burning down because fire engines can't get past the cars parked in the narrow road.

Taxpayers (through the EU) are paying farmers to "set aside" (i.e. not cultivate farm land). Yet planning controls are preventing land owners from building more houses and preventing individuals from living where they wish. Our Alice in Wonderland housing market is impoverishing the population of one of the world's richest nations by soaking up all their free cash to finance their houses. Millionaires live proudly in "valuable" homes which 19th Century manual workers were once ashamed to occupy. It's bizarre.

Surely it would make more sense to invest in infrastructure to permit denser development in the places our people WANT to live. They are deserting the old Northern mill towns in their droves to move to the South-East. Fine. Why should the State get in their way? If we end up with a densely-populated South, but lots of "green lung" North, what is wrong with that? And if we want to keep the green belts, maybe we need to look are more agreeable ways of permitting denser housing in the cities they constrict.

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Serf said...

Yet any move to reduce the cost of houses would be a vote looser. For some reason people think that the nominal rises in the value of their houses is a real increase in wealth. The fact that the only way to get hold of this money is to live on the street is rarely considered.

Tom Paine said...

I have to cling to the belief that the economic chaos caused by a remortgage-fuelled consumer boom will ultimately be a vote-loser too.

The Government knows that it has become addicted to the economic consequences of a self-destructive behaviour on the part of some British people. Its shared ownership scheme is the equivalent of subsidising booze for impoverished alcoholics.

"My name is Gordon Brown, and I am a debt-o-holic."