Housing and the law of unintended consequences

One of the biggest concerns in Devizes at the moment appears to be new housing development. This is a common trigger for local concerns about what is happening in many towns. What seems like a never ending process of building on green fields at the edge of town and growing levels of congestion combine with a societal sense of frustration, that our future is out of our hands. The planning system that supposedly protects us, seems in practice to work in favour of the powerful and local interests are apparently ignored. Devizes is no exception to this process, with a series of major housing schemes under way and more proposed, all pouring traffic onto London Road and a groundswell building up of blanket opposition to any new development, almost to the idea of change.

In the end though, simply opposing development is counter productive. Children are born, grow up and leave home, families want to trade up or down, people change jobs and need to move. All create a demand for housing (and other facilities) that must be met somewhere. The planning system attempts to do this, imperfectly, by a process of ‘predict and provide’.

One technique of planning large human settlements developed in the past hundred years has been the device of establishing ‘projective need’. This means guessing the future physical and social requirements of a community or city and then basing present spending and energy so as to achieve a readiness for the projected future state. In planning schools, beginning students usually argue that people’s lives in time are wandering and unpredictable, that societies have a history in the sense that they do not do what is expected of them, so that this device is misleading. Planning teachers usually reply that of course the projected need would be altered by practical objections in the course of being worked out; the projective need analysis is a pattern of ideal conditions rather than a fixed prescription.

But the facts of planning in the last few years have shown that this disclaimer on the part of planners is something that they do not really mean. Professional planners of highways, of redevelopment housing, of inner city renewal projects have treated challenges from displaced community groups as a threat to the value of their plans rather than as a natural part of the effort of social reconstruction. Over and over again one can hear in planning circles a fear expressed when the human beings affected by planning changes become even slightly interested in the remedies proposed for their lives. ‘Interference’, ‘blocking’, and ‘interruption of work’ – these are the terms by which social challenges or divergences from the planner’s projections are interpreted. What has really happened is that the planners have wanted to take the plan, the projection in advance, as more ‘true’ than the historical turns, the unforeseen movements in the real time of human lives.

“The Uses of Disorder”; Richard Sennett 1970


This quote comes from a book published in 1970, but is still relevant today. It applies moreover not just to what we conventionally call planning in the UK, but to all those other areas where the state attempts to predict what will happen in order better to work out how they – which means we – will pay for it.

At the root of such predictive thinking is an idea of perfectibility that runs counter to all we know of human behaviour. We will never have enough information; we will never have enough money to do everything. Expecting the state nevertheless to act as if it can do just that is surely dangerous. Civil society is built not on political prescription or ideology but on the day-to-day interaction of people, individually and in groups. A society built on the precept ‘they should do something’ is unhealthy and in the long run, unworkable. It implies a willingness to accept the imposition of a pattern of life on others and a lack of willingness to take responsibility for our own lives and for those dependent on us.

The amount of land allocated for housing in the local plan for Devizes has been arrived at through such a process. The practical outcome is that the supply of land is artificially limited by the planning process. Whether you think this is a good thing or not depends on your position in the process. Not surprisingly residents tend to view things differently to  potential developers.

Whatever your view, limiting the supply of land for housing will have an effect:

  • It generally drives up the price of housing land and hence of both new and existing housing. [# ]
  • It encourages the concentration of new housing in large chunks. It is easier for the Planning Authority to handle objections to half a dozen large sites than dozens of small ones. Small sites also generate infrastructure costs that cannot easily be recouped through Planning Agreements.  This biases the development process in favour of bigger companies, who can more easily afford the up front infrastructure costs, so creating conditions of oligopoly, reducing competition between developers . This again drives up the price of new housing.
  • It hands huge financial windfalls to local landowners as land values shoot up from perhaps £4000/acre to £3-500,000/acre (or more)
  • Larger chunks of development concentrate the environmental impact of new development and are harder to absorb. They can lead to a situation where the rate of housing development outstrips the ability of the local market to provide the other infrastructure, whether public or private, at the same time as limiting the ability of developers to contribute towards the cost of that infrastructure without driving up the cost of housing even further.
  • In any event developers (and through them new occupiers) can only be expected to contribute to the cost of such additional demand on infrastructure as they might generate. They can’t legally be asked to make up any existing shortfall and even if they could that is yet another cost on new house prices.
  • On the other hand, relying on smaller individual allocations makes it much harder to develop new settlements as originally conceived by Ebenezer Howard and the early pioneers of the New Towns Movement.

There is no easy solution. A Tory politician recently said that we should simply treble the amount of undeveloped land brought into development, but such a drastic change in policy would also have a host of unknown and unknowable consequences as the quote above from Richard Sennett explains. Somehow we need to find a balance between centralised state control over the scale and pattern of development – because that simply doesn’t work – without handing that power to people who will try to apply the same false predictive process in order to pull up the drawbridge behind them. Where that balance might be I don’t know. I do believe we have it wrong now.

# A book published in 1973 “The Containment of Urban England” by Peter Hall and others estimated that in some cases the effect of the planning system was to increase the value of agricultural land 100fold. I suspect this still holds at minimum and in crowded areas like the SE will have been exceeded.

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