It’s easy to think that what we have in this country is set in stone but I along with other members of a working group looking at housing in the UK have found that not only is our housing scene almost unique, but almost all the alternatives seem more attractive.
It’s worth analysing where we were and where we are now. Things changed in 1947 with the advent of the Town & Country Planning Act and the basis of the modern planning regime that we all know and love.
The act introduced the concept of needing planning permission to build something. Before that, as long as you owned the land you could build what you wanted. Of course, different planning policies were developed over the years, some more liberal than others. In the 1960s, for instance, new homes were allowed in the countryside but not now.
The planning system has become increasingly illiberal and responsive to the negative rhythms that local politics is predisposed to in that it’s easier to say no to something than say yes. It’s set up to help those keen on maintaining the status quo namely, people who own houses they want to stay in and is protective rather than progressive.
The problem is this status quo doesn’t work for many. It is set up to prevent building, resulting in artificially high house prices and a seller’s market, meaning poor quality and design. And because as a recent commentator in Mortgage Strategy pointed out it’s so difficult to get planning permission, developers tend to bank large swathes of land for years and take options on the rest.
So what should we do? Well, the government is largely moving in the right direction with its recently announced National Planning Policy Framework to shift the power away from negative local politics. Sadly, the other hand of the government’s planning agenda localism – struggles to shake off its appeal to the Not In My Back Yard brigade. Recent announcements on easing the route for self-build sound promising but delivery will be key.
So what of those foreign alternatives? Where to look for inspiration, a vision of where the British housing scene might be headed?
Australia provides some interesting lessons in how a different housing culture might work. The most striking thing you notice in Australian property supplements is that the new homes market is geared towards putting home owners in control. You’ll see homes for sale and many plots of land but you’ll rarely see new homes built for people to buy. It’s all geared towards custom home building.
Developers will sell house and land packages if consumers want them, but the system is set up around the individual securing a location and plot, and then choosing the home they want to go on it.
Even better, that as-yet-unbuilt home has a fixed price and guaranteed specifications, which can be upgraded as the owner desires. You’ll get a basic specification which can be upgraded to include things such as air conditioning for an extra cost. It’s a bit like buying a new car.
What’s more, to boost the housing market the Australian government offers all first-time buyers a grant of $7,000 (£4,500), which is occasionally matched by individual states too.
I visited Western Australia earlier in the year and found its housing market a culture shock. The home is designed for the owner and the housing estates we know and love here one monotonous, poorly designed home after the other with tiny gardens are replaced with well-crafted communities of unique and architect-designed family homes.
The community a brownfield site in a Perth suburb had a small selection of house and land packages for those who want them, but in general this a bespoke community and it works brilliantly. It is full of interesting and innovative homes that work well together.
Out of the city, I saw plenty of land sales, starting people along a similar process. It all seemed remarkably civilised.
What’s that I hear you say? Of course they can create innovative systems for housing they have all the land in the world. And that’s true not only of Australia, which has a population density of around 2.5 people per square km, but also the US, 29 people per square km, which has a remarkably similar housing model.
But it can and does work in countries with greater population densities. It just means they have to be braver and more creative with land acquisition. The best-known example and one the government has been looking closely at is that of Almere in the Netherlands, which has one of the largest population densities in the world, of 466 per square km.
On land reclaimed from the sea and originally earmarked as agricultural land, Almere, according to the action plan, demonstrates a model for sustainable self-build cities it is not a scattering of villas for the wealthy.
The city, which aims to double in size to almost 300,000 inhabitants by 2030, includes a 100 hectare self-build zone called Homeruskwartier which will house up to 3,000 self-built homes, all individually designed and commissioned by their owners. Plots range in size from less than 100 square metres up to over 12,000 square metres and prices are kept low because the city sells the plots at a fixed price of €375 per square metre (£325, meaning a modest starter 15 x 30m plot is less than £150,000 and the smallest of the plots would be less than £30,000). As a result, Almere has a diverse population more representative of society than UK self-builders.
All that’s required to build is a building permit and the money there are no planning restrictions, resulting in a variety of housing styles (pictured) from kit homes to architectural wonders and the occasional crying shame. It has been acclaimed by everyone who visits it and is one of the best examples we have of how good planning can bring about appealing, diverse communities.
So what is stopping us having a similarly grown-up approach to the new homes market? It certainly isn’t lack of land as only around 10% of Great Britain is developed. And it isn’t our allegedly crowded population while Greater London is packed, the UK’s population density is just over half that of the Netherlands.
We don’t have to live in tiny houses on tiny plots in crammed estates. And given the choice, I’m not sure most of the population would either, so why does our planning system make us?