22 November 2012

In praise of red tape

Two small stories made the news last month. The first was a report by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Institute of British Architects, which found that many of the UK’s new-build homes are poorly designed, with chaotic living spaces for the families that the large housebuilders seduced into buying them. Complaints abounded of homes without internal storage for everyday things like vacuum cleaners, and rooms fitted with the legal minimum number of power sockets, despite this being the age of the iPad and countless other electronic gadgets. Ipsos MORI’s Ben Page was damning about the quality of the homes being built in the UK, stating that the report ‘shows just how cramped and poorly planned much of our housing is today, and the extraordinary lengths people go to cope with it.’ RIBA rightly pointed out that our building regulations are in desperate need of modernisation.

The second story concerned the latest in the Coalition’s ongoing efforts to address the UK’s housing shortage. You can debate whether this is because of the banks’ lending policies, the Labour government’s immigration policy, raw material costs, etc. ad finitum: the simple reality is that we need more homes. The government announced that a new body has been tasked with looking at how housing standards could be simplified, and aims to tackle what (then Housing Minister) Grant Shapps dubbed the ‘alphabet soup’ that is the building code. Which sounds like the positive action we want from politicians, until you realise that it isn’t a bonfire of regulations that is needed, but the somewhat more painstaking job of tightening and fine-tuning our minimum standards for the new wave of homebuilding that the Government wants to unleash.

None of this is news to our leaders. Back in 2007 the Shadow Cabinet was presented with the far-sighted 'Blueprint for a Green Economy', which recognised that ‘building control and planning systems should be more closely integrated as they are in fact two sides of the same coin’. The demands we place on our living spaces haven’t changed much since then, and it is worth considering that the current offering from the building industry isn’t exactly popular. Currently only one in four home buyers would consider a new-build property, so clearly something isn’t right, as consumers generally prefer new things. If the government merely decides to axe energy efficiency requirements and other quality of life regulations in an effort to get house building going at the lowest possible price, they will be making a bad situation a whole lot worse. Why should the striving classes who will have to live in these new properties face needlessly high heating bills and cowboy home design? I prefer to be optimistic though: there is now a golden opportunity to ensure that new homes are built with sustainable systems like rainwater harvesting, which offers a return on investment well before the halfway point in a 25 year mortgage and reduces the need for costly utilities infrastructure in years to come.

I mention this episode merely because the War On Red Tape™ is back in full swing this week, with the announcement that the planning appeals process is to be streamlined. The PM is 'getting a grip' on the issue, and the government’s narrative sets the frustrated developers who wish to drive the nation’s growth forward against the Nimbyism and regulatory fat that is clogging up the economy. Cutting regulations makes for a good sound bite, and shows politicians as battling the morass of building paperwork that stands in the way of the slow march to economic recovery.

Except this simply isn’t true. Ignore the fallacy that home-building delivers economic growth (it does, but only in the very short term, with the main beneficiaries being the shareholders of the large housebuilding companies, the farmers keen to cash in and flog their productive lands, and the migrant EU workforce needed to deliver the boom in construction). Appealing planning decisions is incredibly important to sustainable, harmonious communities.

For example, Conservative Wandsworth (my local authority) is an exemplar council: its reputation for competence regularly sees wards that vote Labour at general elections returning a full complement of Tory councillors at the local elections. Wandsworth has campaigned tirelessly against a 1,200 home development located well beyond reasonable walking distance to our local railway stations, with the local road network already desperately congested, as anyone who has battled their way down Trinity Road knows only too well. The appeals process has allowed Wandsworth Council to whittle down the ambitions of the developer to less disastrous levels, and highlights the importance of letting communities put their case and balancing the steamroller effect of the big developers’ deep pockets. Often projects are improved as designs are scrutinised, with the final blueprints gaining far greater acceptance from all sections of society – and surely this is a good thing?

There is also a broader, more philosophical point. We Conservatives believe in the power of the individual and society, not the blunt tools wielded by the big state, which is fortunate as the number of applications for judicial review in planning cases has dropped since 2006 – the rocketing 11,000 applications figure mentioned by the PM in his speech driven by immigration, that other political bĂȘte noire. Cherrypicking statistics belies the reality, and writing in Monday’s Guardian, Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC hailed the evolution of British administrative law since 1945 as a major achievement, and one that is in fine health today. Compare this to the confidence in our political system, which many of the public feel increasingly estranged from.

So here lies the danger. How much more alienated will the ‘little people’ far removed from Westminster or even just their local town hall feel when the government has lengthened the odds in their fight against the ruthless calculations of the circling developers? Regulation might feel like a brake on our economy, but it is the price we pay for people believing that they are part of an inclusive society. The general public’s simmering fury over the fast tax practices of Amazon, Starbucks, and other big businesses is a warning that politicians can ill afford to ignore.

First published by Platform 10 on November 22nd, 2012