The way out of the housing crisis

Local planning, local tax autonomy

Photograph: Getty Images

The empirical evidence from around the world is as clear as it gets: In the long run, housing costs are mostly determined by the severity of planning restrictions (see here, pp. 17-19). Those who are emotionally attached to the British planning system try their best not to see this connection by looking for explanations, however implausible, outside of the planning system. What they do not realise is that most of the research tests alternative explanations, and carefully controls for a wide range of other potential factors. But the bottom line is that other factors, while not irrelevant, are ultimately sideshows when looking at a sufficiently long period. The first and foremost reason why housing is so expensive in the UK is that the planning system does not allow enough homes to be built. We only need to look at the number of dwellings completed over the past thirty years, and compare it to any other country for which data is available (p. 14).

But if planning restrictions drive house prices – what is it that drives planning restrictions? Or in other words, why would the electorate deliberately and permanently deprive itself of housing space?

Part of the answer is that while restrictive planning is damaging on the whole, some people do benefit, and the benefits are concentrated and tangible. For landlords as well as homeowners living close to undeveloped land, the benefits of planning restrictions are obvious: The former can charge much higher rents than they otherwise could, and the latter enjoy greater housing wealth and open space nearby. Less intuitively, corporate developers can also be counted among the beneficiaries. The system raises the fixed costs of development, leading to a heavily concentrated market structure dominated big players. In most of continental Europe, corporate developers play a much smaller role than in the UK.

Meanwhile, the cost of the system is much more dispersed and opaque. The result of this asymmetry is that the beneficiaries of planning restrictions are much more likely to be politically organised, and voice their interest in the political arena. Organisations like the Council to Protect Rural England can always be counted on to be active on the anti-development side. But there is no obvious lobby representing those who cannot get a foot on the housing ladder, those who struggle with high rents, or those who are trapped in social housing. Not to mention those who are stuck in the endless waiting lists.

Some of those frustrated with the current system have resorted to attacking ‘nimbys’ as selfish snobs, but what we have to realise is that the current system makes nimbyism entirely rational. In principle, development brings costs as well as benefits to a community. Yes, it is a nuisance to residents, and it does lead to a loss of open space. But it also enlarges the local tax basis, which could enable either better local public services, or lower local taxes. The key problem is that the tax structure in the UK has become so overly centralised that this latter consideration plays virtually no role at all anymore. Local tax revenue in the UK represents a risible 1.7% of GDP. For comparison: Even in France, which has traditionally been considered the textbook model of super-centralised governance, the share is 5.2%.  

What this means is that the downsides of development are felt by local people, while the advantages of development are collectivised at the national level. Should we be surprised if people act ‘nimbyistic’ under these conditions?

The way out of the housing affordability crisis is to get the incentive structure right. Local authorities should become self-funding. They should finance their own expenditure from locally raised taxes, be it a local income tax, a local property tax, or whatever they see fit. They should then also obtain full control over planning decisions in their surrounding. Local residents would finally be able to reap the benefits from development, instead of just bearing the cost. Nimbysim would not disappear, but it would greatly reduce, because it would simply become too expensive to be nimbyist.