Could zoning help the UK build its way out of a housing crisis?

More of this please. Image: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Since 1979, some British governments have favoured more intervention in the economy, some less – but all of them have broadly supported both free markets and mass home ownership. The latest report from the Centre for Cities, then, makes a claim that might come as a surprise. It asserts that the British housing market, in its arbitrary approach to building permits and in the way it guarantees shortages, bears resemblance to the Soviet economies of the Eastern Bloc. 

The report, by analyst Anthony Breach, argues that Britain’s inability to build enough homes to meet demand results not from bad decisions by developers or councils, but from the entire institutional structure of the planning system. It calls for fundamental reform – turning away from the current discretionary approach, and instead embracing a form of zoning that's less restrictive than common models seen in the US. It also suggests reconsidering the green belt with a system that brings land into development based on population growth; and swapping the current system of developer contributions with a flat levy of 20% on all developments.

Breach’s paper draws on the work of Hungarian economist János Kornai, whose 1980 article "Economics of Shortage" argued that shortages in Eastern Europe under Soviet rule resulted not from human error but from systemic flaws. It notes two parallels between these economies and the UK housing market. One is the discretionary rationing of inputs. In both cases, you need to apply for a permit just to get started; in both cases, this can be arbitrarily refused. This introduces an element of uncertainty you can’t simply buy your way out of.

The second parallel is, Breach argues, the direct result of this: systemic and long-term shortages. Normal supply issues in market economies, like the undersupply of toilet paper that, upsettingly, hit British supermarkets in early 2020, are short term and quickly corrected (prices rise and supply increases). That isn't what's happening in the UK housing market.

Other oddities of the UK housing market – land-banking, slow construction rates, the poor quality and location of new homes – “all emerge from the planning system’s unpredictable rationing of new development”, Breach argues. “These institutional constraints force developers to undersupply new homes at high prices.”

The report proposes a number of ideas to address this, and remove uncertainty and rationing from the system. One is to end the green belt, which prevents development of land around many cities no matter how high demand gets, and instead bring land into development based on actual population growth.

Another is to scrap Section 106 agreements, under which developers contribute affordable housing or community facilities as part of their planning agreement. Such agreements were intended as a way for councils to recoup increases in land values (so-called planning gain) and pour it back into things that’ll benefit communities. But developers spend time and money on gaming the system and arguing their contributions down, which in turn creates uncertainty. The Centre for Cities’s report calls for this to end, in favour of a flat 20% levy on development value. 

The big one, though, is making it much clearer how to get planning permission. At present, every proposal has to pass council planning officers and committees of councillors, giving the public the opportunity to object to each development. One in ten permissions is refused, the report notes; “there is also an unknown number of applications which are never made, as firms suspect they will not succeed”.

To replace that, the report calls for the whole edifice to be knocked down and replaced with a simplified system of zoning. National governments would produce a “new flexible zoning code”, which councils would use when drawing up their local plans. The public would be consulted on those plans, but not on every individual development. Proposals which met the specifications laid out in the plans would then be granted permission automatically. Suddenly the system has more certainty.

Would this work? One quarrel, raised by several people in a Twitter thread in which Breach answered questions about his ideas, is that building our way out of housing crisis is a very long term solution. Maybe it’d help, eventually. But it does nothing to tackle homelessness or reduce the urgent need for subsidised housing in expensive cities – at least, not any time soon.

A second issue is that many of the most expensive cities in the world, like New York and San Francisco, already rely on zoning. Surely the Boston housing market doesn’t also look like the Eastern Bloc? Breach’s report acknowledges this (“their zoning codes are often highly restrictive, with each zone corresponding to a single possible use, or imposing tight limits on density”) and argues the new zones must be kept simple if they’re to work. Nonetheless, this does suggest that zoning is not a magic bullet.

But the biggest issue, as ever, remains politics: The planning system looks like it does in part because many people want it to. For all the social and economic damage it’s done, support for restrictions on development remains very high – NIMBYism among politicians reflects NIMBYism among the voters. What’s more, even if we could produce enough homes tomorrow, the British economy has been dependent on rising house prices for so long that it’s not clear what the effects of unwinding it would be.  

To some, communism sounded nice in theory, but turned out to be horrible in reality. The same may be true of planning reform.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.