There is a broad consensus among politicians, analysts and commentators that Britain needs to build more housing. You can encounter dissent from that view, but it tends to be on the fringes – in deep UKIP anti-migrant territory or the paramilitary wing of the rural lobby.
The debate opens up when we start to examine why Britain is plagued with a relatively unresponsive housing supply system. On the political right and among many economists the problem is seen to lie with the planning system. Full stop. Economists with a more subtle understanding of the issues will argue it is the mismatch between the underlying spatial dynamics of economic growth and the planning system. For the more institutionally inclined, the analysis has to be broadened to encompass not just the planning system but also industrial structure of housebuilding and the concentrated nature of the market for land. Weakening the planning system without attending to the other components of the housing supply system won’t get you very far. It is very likely to lead to anger in local communities as their areas are trampled over by insensitive volume housebuilders throwing up unsympathetic developments which place additional strain on under-resourced local infrastructure.
The attitudes of local communities towards new development in their area is an important part of the equation in encouraging new supply. Because when we refer to “the planning system” it should be seen as a short hand for the way local political preferences are embedded in the systems for controlling spatial development. NIMBYism isn’t such a huge problem unless it has an institutional outlet and can affect what happens on the ground.
The publication today of the results of the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey evidence on attitudes towards new development suggest that things may be changing.
The survey is a repeat of questions asked in 2010 and it suggests that opposition to new homes fell substantially over the period. In 2010 nearly half of respondents (46%) opposed new homes being built in their local areas. By 2013 this had dropped to 31%. Positive opinion appears to have firmed up over this period because there was an increase from 28% to 47% in the proportion of respondents who were supportive of development.
The results suggest that it isn’t particular groups who have changed their minds but that opposition to development has decreased across all age, tenure, and income groups and that it has declined among those living in all types of areas. Nonetheless, the survey notes that renters and those living in large cities are still less likely to oppose development than home owners and those living in smaller settlements.
The survey tries to determine whether views on development would become more positive if control of development was more localised or if local authorities received more money for local services to accompany the rise in local population. Greater local control would lead around six out of ten respondents to be more supportive, while around a half would be more supportive if funding for services rose alongside new development. Better designed properties would also incline a substantial minority of respondents to be more positive about development.
It appears that younger people are more likely to think there is a shortage of affordable homes to buy in their area (80% versus 68%). The same is true for private renters rather than owners or social housing tenants (84% versus 70% or 72-73%). More than four out of five respondents thought that affordability has worsened over the last 20 years. Fully a third of respondents thought it had become much more difficult to buy a home over this period.
These results will no doubt be seen as encouraging from a pro-development perspective. But equally when it comes to interpretation they are intriguing.
One of the key questions is whether these changes in attitude have anything to do with the Coalition’s policy agenda. Right up front the survey report is very clear on this point:
The findings provide evidence about changing attitudes to new house building before and after the introduction of the coalition government’s planning and other housing related reforms. Although it is not possible to directly attribute change in attitudes to government policy due to the many other factors which might shape attitudes, the findings do give some context in terms of changing public attitudes over time. (para 1.1)
The report goes on to observe that from the data available it is not possible to say when or how fast attitudes are changing. Is it a slow process of incremental change over the years or did everyone change their mind last Thursday? We don’t know.
This feels like a sensible and sustainable position. But it will presumably come as news to our new Planning Minister because he is quoted in today’s Telegraph as saying: “The Government’s reforms, which introduced a presumption in favour of sustainable development, were responsible for this transformation”.
The Telegraph reports the Minister as continuing:
“Since 2010 there has been a dramatic swing in public opinion about house building,” he says. “Now that local people have a bigger say over where new housing goes they are much happier to support building in their area.”
This seems a rather interesting perspective on what has been happening. It also invites us to investigate how much control has, in fact, been transferred to localities. Certainly you’ll hear views that are considerably more sceptical about the ability of local communities and local authorities to prevail over the wishes of volume builders in many parts of the country. Much of that debate hinges on the local plan process, which is a can of worms I’m not proposing to open here. Suffice to say that the Minister’s view is not one that will be readily endorsed by all, or indeed many.
Given the pattern of the survey responses – it is the young, renters, those in large cities who are more pro-development and more concerned about affordability – it seems much more likely that the shift in attitudes is related to the increasingly acute nature of the housing problems affecting certain groups and certain parts of the country. Even those not directly affected are beginning to notice – as their children or grandchildren struggle to establish themselves in the housing market, for example.
I would also perhaps be a little cautious about some of the subsample results. The sample for the study has been cut from 3,000 respondents in 2010 to 1,000 respondents in 2013. The report goes out of its way to make the point that this shouldn’t particularly affect the robustness of the results. It is true that the changes in attitude observed at the level of the whole sample are sufficiently large that they are unlikely to be a statistical artefact produced by larger sampling errors. But when the sample is broken down into subgroups the sampling errors are going to increase substantially and there is going to be considerable uncertainty over whether some of the relatively small differences detected in the profile of attitudes between groups are very meaningful.
There is a plan to repeat the survey again in the second half of this year, with the results emerging in 2015. It will be fascinating to see whether attitudes continue to shift in favour of new development. We have to hope so because it is a key piece in the jigsaw if we are going to address our housing supply problems without generating greater social discontent.