Councils are granting enough planning permissions – so why aren't we building housing?

The good old days. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

One of the central housing objectives of David Cameron’s government was to liberalise the planning system and increase the amount of land that was permissioned for residential development.

To be fair, in that respect, it didn’t do too bad a job. The number of units given planning permission in England increased from 176,209 in 2011 to 261,644 in 2015. The planning system is now yielding enough permissions to meet the roughly 250,000 new homes many housing economists think we need to keep up with household growth.

This doesn’t mean they are all in precisely the right places – although London’s permissions are running at around 50,000 a year, according to the latest figures from the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG), more or less in line with what the capital is thought to need. Nor does it mean that they are all necessarily in a position to be built out the very next day.

But, still, the number of plots approved for residential development in a given year has increased dramatically, by 48 per cent between 2011 and 2015.

Here’s the thing, though: this has not been matched by anything like a corresponding increase in building activity. Starts have risen over the same period by just 26 per cent, from 110,820 in 2011 to only 139,680 in 2015. If we’re ever to increase housing supply to the required levels, this growing shortfall between permissions and starts will need to be addressed and overcome.

Now, the Home Builders Federation (HBF) dismisses the starts figures as unreliable. And it is true that they probably underestimate activity somewhat  usually by a few thousand units, sometimes possibly by up to 20,000 units.

But even 20,000 (and I’m being really generous there) is nothing compared with the gap that has emerged between new planning permissions and building starts – a gap which was 65,389 in 2011 and, by 2015, have grown to a massive 121,964.

Sure, there is a little bit of give in the figures, but the trend is clear: homes simply aren’t being built as quickly as they are being approved by planners.

Another way of measuring this is to look at the completions numbers from the government’s other housebuilding data series, the more reliable “Net supply of housing”; this is published each November and is the HBF’s preferred source of figures.

Of course, completions take rather longer than start’s, so we have to allow for a degree of timelag: builders reckon homes take two to threee years to proceed from planning permission to being ready for occupation.

But even allowing for that, the same discrepancy occurs. There were 195,300 homes approved in 2012, for example; three years later there were still only 155,080 completions. Whichever we cut this, whether we look at starts or completions, it is clear that building activity has not responded proportionately to the rapid increase in land ripe for development.

The gap between permissions and building activity that has emerged since 2011 can be appreciated at a glance from the following graph. Note too that, pre-crash, while there was a gap back then, it was much tighter.

So what’s behind this? To be fair to developers, many of these planning permissions may not be in their possession. There has long been an issue of non-building landowners (speculators, historic landowners, public sector agencies, and so on) sitting tight while their holdings rise in value. This has been well documented in London by the consultants Molior.

However, Molior has charted a decline not an increase in the number of unbuilt planning permissions being held by non-builders over recent years, from 45 per cent in 2012 to 32 per cent in 2014.

So that still leaves two-thirds of unimplemented permissions in the capital in the hands of developers. So why are they not throwing up houses? Is there not a shortage of homes in this country?

Unfortunately the private housebuilding industry does not cater to housing need: it caters to effective demand. The building activity depicted in the graph above (minus 20,000 or so housing association starts each year) reflects not how many houses could be built, but how many willing buyers there are ready to purchase a new-build property at current market prices.

Developers do not build out sites as quickly as they physically can. They build them out as quickly as people are prepared to buy them – at the current market price or higher. As Philip Barnes, group land and planning director at Barratt Developments, recently observed:

The reality is that housebuilders, as return-on-capital businesses are not able to build our products at a pace faster than our customers will purchase them, at the market value.

“We could in theory cut prices to speed up sales – but we have based our land purchase price on the estimated market values so we don’t have this option in practice.”

Does this amount to landbanking? Developers say it doesn’t.

But, whatever we might call this process, the effect is that they are not releasing land with houses on it back into the market until it has reached the price they need to achieve to turn a profit. They are acting perfectly rationally in the present market – if I were a housebuilder I would do the same – but this is not an arrangement which is compatible with dramatically increasing the number of homes to plug a housing shortage.

Addressing this dynamic is something that Theresa May’s government must prioritise if it is to make any real headway on housing. There are various policies that have been uggested for tackling it. Opening up the market to SME builders by increasing the number of smaller development sites would be a good start, although it is unlikely this would make quite the difference that is needed.


A bolder route would be for the government or councils to directly commission builders (including, again, many SMEs) to put up the houses we need, and so bypass the private sector; but this will involve spending a good chunk of money.

Short of that, private developers will have to be incentivised to build more quickly. This will probably mean giving – and requiring – local authorities the power to impose contractual obligations about the pace of development when granting planning permission in the first place. It will mean creating a framework within which developers do not bid each other up for every plot of land to such a price that they cannot afford to build it out at speed.

If it is clear and explicit enough, the local authority’s requirements for all developments could be used by developers to signal to landowners that they cannot pay above a certain price for the land. Land prices, the repositary for most of the inflated value in housing, would be anchored.

Don’t get me wrong: we are still going to need lots more land, in perpetuity, to keep the housing pipeline going. This is not a Nimbys’ charter. It will still be a big task to ensure enough new homes are approved by planners – and in the right places – to meet the rapidly growing need for housing.

But the principal challenge right now is not increasing the numbers of new planning permissions. It’s getting those that are granted built out much more quickly.

Daniel Bentley is editorial director at the think tank Civitas and tweets @danielbentley. His briefing paper “Planning approvals vs housebuilding activity, 2006-2015” was published this week. 

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.