Why developers need to build up, not out

Britain must rethink its unfair and outdated planning system.

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Housing, whether it’s rent or mortgage payments, is probably the biggest single monthly bill that most of us face. And, because we haven’t built enough new hoses for decades, no matter who’s in government, the costs have been getting steeper and steeper. We only add 1 or 2 per cent more living space to our existing housing each year, which isn’t nearly enough to keep up with demand.

This has left us with less living space, longer commutes, less cash left over for other things each month and, overall, a lower quality of life for all of us. But particularly for “generation rent”: the twenty-and-thirty-somethings who are just starting out in life and can’t afford a place of their own.

Most of their parents could just about afford to jump on the housing ladder, so they’ve been the winners from spiralling house prices. But it’s at the expense of their children, and that’s unjust. We’re being unfair to an entire generation, which is why I’ve been campaigning to change our hideously complicated and expensive planning laws so we can build up, not out in towns and cities.

Most of Britain’s towns are, on average, about two stories tall. But not everywhere; there are plenty of examples of good-looking five or five-storey town houses and mansion blocks, rather than sky-high tower blocks, which look great and create vibrant communities where people want to live.

So why don’t we let more people in British towns and cities build upwards, giving them the legal right to convert one and two-storey homes into those four or five-storey buildings that work so well elsewhere, without the hassle, expense and risk of planning permission?

If we did, we’d nearly double the amount of potential space for homes at a stroke. It would be the biggest single creation of new, available living space for generations. Far bigger than the post-war building boom. Miles more ambitious than the new towns movement which gave birth to places like Milton Keynes.

The effect on the housebuilding industry would be electric, and generation rent would be the winners. Small builders would be able to buy one or two urban homes and create spacious new town apartments without all the pain, conflict, heartache and fat fees for lawyers and planning consultants that the current system demands.

It would mean people struggling to own or rent would suddenly find they’d got far more choices than before. We’d go from a seller’s market, where young would-be tenants or buyers have to go on bended knee to their parents’ generation who own everything, to a new world where renters and buyers have the whip hand for the first time in decades.

We wouldn’t need to change very much either; creating the legal right to build up to four or five storeys in towns and cities is fairly simple. Local councils could issue local building codes, so the new, taller buildings matched the local architectural style and used local materials. In fact, by matching the best of what’s already there, we’d give our towns and cityscapes back their character, by stopping “anywhere-ville” estates of identical houses. And we’d stop big developers from building where the local plans say they shouldn’t, by including the newly-created sites in the local five-year housing supply.

And that’s it. We wouldn’t want or need to change building safety regulations at all, for obvious reasons. Non-urban sites, plus any project taller than four or five storeys, or which didn’t follow the local council’s style code, or which converted shops and warehouses into residential homes, would still need planning permission in the usual way. And altering listed buildings would still need heritage consent too.

But the positive effects on Britain’s towns and cities would be huge. Having mansion blocks, terraced streets or mews houses, would create communities to rival the most successful districts of London, Bath, Bristol, Manchester or Birmingham. Building up, not out would bring hordes of smaller, local builders and developers back into the housebuilding industry, breaking the stranglehold of large housebuilding firms.

It would attract much-needed new investment to regenerate and save tired or rundown town and city centres. And it would be greener, reducing both commuting (because people can live closer to their jobs) and urban sprawl by cutting the pressure from builders to concrete over green fields and green belts at the edge of towns and cities across the country.

Cheaper homes are one of the most important ways of raising living standards for everyone and improving economic productivity. Building up, not out can go a long way to achieving it. A generation of potential homeowners and renters is watching.

This is part of a new policy paper that John Penrose MP has written, A Shining City Upon A Hill: Rebooting Capitalism for the Many, Not the Few, where he argues the capitalism needs re-booting. Find the paper at www.johnpenrose.org