Playing house: the Eastleigh by-election and planning control politics

Creating pro-housing planning laws won't be easy, if the Conservatives' defeat in Eastleigh is anything to go by.

Looking down on southern England from a great height, the land lacks firm and definite boundaries as to where the dominion of humanity ends and that of nature begins. English woods, fields and hedgerows appear ineffably tender, “mild, softened, rounded in things, on which hands or their immediate tools have worked;” if not the hands of those who live there, then those of their ancestors, such that not one single square inch remains free from some tinge of past or present labour. The countryside is less a place, more a world view.

It should not therefore be surprising that land use is a potent political question there, as evidenced by the February 18th approval of a mere 1,400 homes in an empty field by some Liberal Democrat planners in Hampshire which wound up becoming the central issue in last week's parliamentary by-election in Eastleigh. In the decision’s wake, the incumbent Lib Dems made a desperate and ultimately successful rearguard pivot to portray themselves as pro-conservation, claiming to have “blocked Conservative County plans for housing at Allington Lane, Tanhouse Lane and Kings Copse Avenue”. Refusing to allow that characterisation to go unanswered, the Chairman of the Conservative Party responded by accusing his Liberal opponents of “misleading” the electorate and “planning to concrete over Eastleigh's countryside” while local activists counterclaimed that their “underhanded,” “Janus-faced” opponents were “parasites on the body politic.”

The truth is less hysterical. Both parties are pro- and anti-development at once, with national parties broadly in favour and local parties generally in opposition. At least some of this political cleavage arises from that deeply-inscribed English parochialism which, giving Fulham in London as an example, allows local planners to admit on the one hand that “tall buildings can help regenerate an area by attracting investment” while concurrently claiming that they are “unacceptable” in any area which might interfere with “the setting of a listed building,” “open spaces and their settings” and “Historic Parks and their settings.” This approach to urban planning is clearly absurd; few would argue that the New York Public Library and Bryant Park are diminished in the least by their supertall neighbours, whereas one would struggle to describe the planning-controlled surroundings of Fulham Palace and Bishops Park as even slightly edifying.

This English lack of cosmopolitan awareness is one with which those who would reform planning policy must contend, especially in the wake of the reforms brought about by the Planning Act 2011 which give local communities and councils more power to decide the course of planning applications, not less, including mandatory pre-application consultation for major planning applications (being residential developments of over 200 units or any development which brings on-line 10,000 square metres of gross floor space).

The *Economist* proposes that a solution lies in understanding that Councils have “few incentives to approve building… [as they] can only extract part of the value [for approving developments]” in the form of planning gain, though such amounts are “rarely enough to calm local opponents.” To the contrary, it argues, it would be “better to change the incentives to favour development”. Take, for example, Germany, "where local authorities that attract new residents get bigger grants and more tax revenue, as well as gains from giving planning permission. That ensures a steady supply of housing, even when prices are not rising.”

Such an approach might work, and the interests of councils, residents and developers might be easier to align, if the only considerations in planning control were tax revenues and government grants. It is widely accepted that the benefits of government grants, including welfare, accrue to the common landowner by being capitalised into house prices; as a study by the Spatial Economics Research Centre points out, the provision of local amenities of a financial nature such as lower rates of council tax and better public facilities including policing and schools is spending which is “valued by the marginal homebuyer.”

The same cannot be said of new housebuilding, in relation to which existing homeowners stand little to gain—and much to lose.

Non-pecuniary benefits of the provision of open space, such as in Eastleigh, accrue to landowners in the same way as a grant or subsidy; however, since (to paraphrase von Mises) neither value nor price are measured in money but merely consist in it, this value can be difficult for an untrained eye to identify. It can nonetheless be measured, as done in a study authored by Stephen Sheppard and Paul Cheshire.

“The market price of ‘vacant’ land within an urban area”, they wrote, “reflects the supply of amenities and local public goods available at each location in addition to the value of the land as pure space with accessibility [to an employment centre],” and “land use planning determines the quantity of several amenities available at any location and also influences the overall supply” of such land. It necessarily follows that “land use planning determines the quantity of several amenities available at any location and also influences the overall supply of land as pure space,” and restrictive land use planning will constrain that supply—increasing its price.

But where the distribution of land is unequal, so will be the distribution of the benefits of planning control. The authors note that while the “provision of open space that is generally accessible to the public” such as a city park “generates benefits that are significant and tend to reduce inequality,” conversely the “provision of open space that is inaccessible to the public (largely located at the urban periphery),” such as the Green Belt or fields between Eastleigh and Winchester, “generates benefits that are very unequally distributed… in a way that favours those who are already favoured with higher incomes,” namely those who are likely to own land. Overall, the authors conclude, the net cost of planning control to society is “equivalent to a tax on incomes of 3.9%,” with attendant rises in Gini inequality attributable to the provision of inaccessible open space (+3.54 per cent), restraining the availability of industrial land (+0.92 per cent), and the house price capitalization of planning amenities in general (+3.10 per cent).

Which brings us back to Eastleigh, where the Government suffered the political equivalent of a dissociative episode over plans to erect less than one half of one percent of the new stock which must be built annually if the housing crisis is to ease.

The by-election paints the planning system in a terrible light, little more than a rent-seeking vehicle controlled by local property owners; local planning seems just as ineffective as central planning at ensuring efficient and equitable use of the country’s land stock. Reform is prudent and necessary. As legislation exists that ensures that developers refrain from causing environmental and physical harm to their tenants, adjacent properties and the community at large, there are many reasons—the housing crisis chief among them—to let people build what they like upon land that is theirs, unfettered by political control. In a free society, this would not be a radical proposal.

House of Commons: The Liberal Democrat MP for Eastleigh, Mike Thornton, with Nick Clegg. Photograph: Getty Images

Preston Byrne is a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder