“According to the LGA, my flat doesn’t exist”: Does Britain really have 475,000 unbuilt homes?

Another day, another building site stock photo. Image: Getty.

The British public have cottoned on that we have a bit of a problem building enough homes – one which has contributed to the outrageous housing costs hitting younger workers across most of the country. Everything that ever gets built in Britain needs planning permission, so more and more people have naturally been pointing fingers at planning for causing our growing housing shortages.

But planning is run by local government, and the Local Government Association is having none of it. It’s adamant that it is the dastardly developers who aren't building the homes that they graciously been given planning permission to deliver.

It is always nice to have a big, eye-catching number when you make an argument like this, and the LGA have one: they reckon that there 475,000 un-built homes with planning permission in England and Wales. “These figures conclusively prove that the planning system is not a barrier to house building,” the LGA triumphantly exclaimed.

Well that's that then, isn't it? I'll meet you with my pitchfork in front of the Home Builders' Federation.

But hang on a second. Let's just take a closer look at this figure. To get to 475,000 unbuilt homes, the LGA have looked at every development scheme that has permission, and decided that, until the scheme is completed, the whole development should be classed as unimplemented – even if most of the houses are mid-construction, or even if they have been finished.

If you count houses that have been built as unbuilt, you are obviously going to end up seriously exaggerating from reality. I am writing this article from a flat that was finished 18 months ago; but another part of the development is still being built. According to these figures, I live in an unbuilt home.

Another study has also looked at the issue of unbuilt homes with planning permission issue. The Labour Party-commissioned Lyons Review analysed the same source data, but took into account whether or not construction was actually taking place. It came up with a very different number: just 130,000 planned homes were genuinely stalled or on hold. Of course we need action to get stalled homes built – but we also need to be clear about the extent of the problem.

Still, maybe developers could be doing more to build faster, and it is certainly true that the pipeline from permission to completion is growing. But when we need to be building 300,000 homes per year to make in-roads into our housing shortage, at the rate we ought to be building, a pipeline of 475,000 would only be 19 months of land supply.

So the figure is dodgy, and might not be as big as it sounds. But are we even looking at the most important figure to begin with? Surely the key point isn't how long the development pipeline is, but how much is going through the pipe to begin with.

To get more houses completed, we need our councils to be granting enough planning permission to begin with, especially in the areas where housing costs are the most unaffordable. That means setting ambitious housing targets in their local plans so that more land is opened up for homes and can have planning permission granted.

Yet too often councils are criticised by the Planning Inspectorate for under-baking their housing targets. And while the LGA's raw figures show 212,000 planning permissions were issued last year, we should adjust that for permissions which have vanished due to expiry, or reapplications on the same site.

Do that, and the true figure is actually 169,000 new permissions genuinely entering the pipeline. We are a long way away from our councils planning for the 300,000 homes per year we need.

So much the idea that planning isn’t the problem. If we are to avoid the housing crisis from getting any worse, then instead of deflecting attention away from themselves, we need local government to step up to the mark to build the homes we need.

Thanks to Joe Sarling and Neal Hudson for their assistance with the analysis contained in this article.

Duncan Stott is director of the affordable housing campaign Priced Out.


Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.

Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.

What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.