The way out of the housing crisis

Local planning, local tax autonomy

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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Kristian Niemietz joined the IEA in 2008 as Poverty Research Fellow.

Kristian is currently a PhD student in Public Policy at King's College London, where he also teaches economics. He is the author of the recent IEA Discussion Paper on planning reform, Abundance of Land, Shortage of Housing.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.