Well, at least she hasn’t made things worse: on Theresa May’s latest housing speech

What a subtle background. Image: Getty.

There’s an idiosyncratic subgenre of the political speech that Theresa May tends to excel in. She’ll begin by cogently and persuasively diagnosing a problem – before immediately laying out a series of solutions that are very obviously not going to solve it, and may in fact make things worse.

Today’s speech on housing and planning, then, feels like a close relation of last week’s, “Brexit will make this country worse – here’s my plan for it” effort (which Stephen covered over at the mothership here).

The Prime Minister did a very good job of expressing the frustration felt by those, mostly young, people who are locked out of home ownership. But the best one can say about the policies she proposed to address this is that they probably won’t actually make things worse. This may not sound like much – but it is actually a genuinely improvement on the Cameron/Osborne approach to this stuff, so let’s give credit where it’s due.

I’m not going to annotate the entire speech – it’s nearly 4,000 words long, and nobody wants that, frankly. But some extracts follow, with my commentary.

On my first day as Prime Minister, I spoke on the steps of Downing Street about my desire to make this a country that works for everyone.

A country where, regardless of where you live, your race or religion, or what your parents do for a living, you have a fair chance to get on and build a life for yourself and your family.

It’s a philosophy that shapes everything this government does

This will no doubt come as a surprise to EU citizens, other migrants, Remain voters, public sector workers, and pretty much anyone who doesn’t vote Conservative, but never mind that now.

Talking to voters during last year’s election campaign, it was clear that many people, particularly younger people, are angry about [housing].

Angry that, regardless of how hard they work, they won’t be able to buy a place of their own. Angry when they’re forced to hand more and more of their wages to a landlord to whom their home is simply a business asset. Angry that, no matter how many sacrifices they make to save for a deposit, they’ll never be able to compete with someone whose parents have released equity from their own home to help their children buy.

They’re right to be angry.

Theresa May says you’re allowed to be angry, young people: please update your records accordingly.

Actually, we shouldn’t be too down on this bit – because this is as good as it’s going to get.

I still vividly remember the first home that I shared with my husband, Philip. Not only our pictures on the walls and our books on the shelves, but also the security that came from knowing we couldn’t be asked to move on at short notice.

And because we had that security, because we had a place to go back to, it was that much easier to play an active role in our community. To share in the common purpose of a free society.

This is where the wheels start to come off.

The personal anecdote feels like a very deliberate choice – May is not a politician prone to public displays of emotion. And it speaks to a real, and once widespread, experience, too. Perhaps the fact that a home is owned, not rented, rationally shouldn’t change the way it feels… but it very clearly does. Even with a quite absurd mortgage attached, home ownership brings a sensation of security, of being rooted in a particular place.

And yet – there are things the government could do to change the balance here a little, to give tenants more security: longer tenancies, stronger rights for renters, changing the law to allow tenants to redecorate or keep pets or have children…

Very little of that is on offer in this speech (longer tenancies are touched upon, but no detail is given). One suspects that this is because the corollary of stronger rights for tenants is weaker ones for landlords.

Now, this government is already taking action to help hard-pressed buyers. We’re putting an extra £10bn into Help to Buy, giving another 135,000 families a step up the property ladder. We’re scrapping stamp duty for 80 per cent of first-time buyers, and looking at ways to make the whole process of buying and selling homes quicker, easier and cheaper.

Both of these policies mean pumping more money into the housing market. What exactly does the prime minister imagine this will do to house prices?

But to stop the seemingly endless rise in house prices, we simply have to build more homes – especially in the places where unaffordability is greatest.

Good.

So this Government is rewriting the rules on planning. With the major overhaul being published today, we’re giving councils and developers the backing they need to get more homes built more quickly.

Less good. Almost before she’d finished speaking, the Local Government Association put out a statement describing the speech as “unhelpful and misguided” and suggested that removing council borrowing caps would do a lot more good. This does not sound like giving councils the backing they need to get more homes built.

We’ve changed the rules so authorities facing the greatest affordability pressures can access the finance they need to build more council homes for local people.

See above.

More money is available to councils – but it’s a pot they have to bid for, and central government gets the final say. Lifting the borrowing cap, allowing councils to borrow against future income streams, would allow them to bypass Whitehall. This would speed things up – but it would also add to government debt and more to the point would bypass Whitehall, so Whitehall doesn’t like it.

Anyway. Local government does not, by and large, expect this speech to change very much.

But it’s also time for builders and developers to step up and do their bit.

The bonuses paid to the heads of some of our biggest developers are based not on the number of homes they build but on their profits or share price. In a market where lower supply equals higher prices that creates a perverse incentive, one that does not encourage them to build the homes we need.

This is where things get really crazy.

I mean… yes, that’s how capitalism works, isn’t it? Apple executives are not paid based on how many people they can provide iPhones for, but on how much money they can make by selling those iPhones.

So I have some sympathy with the idea that – if we want to bring house prices down – we shouldn’t rely on a bunch of companies with an interest in keeping house prices high to do it. But that’s not what May is saying, and however annoying she may find the volume housebuilders’ behaviour, they’re always going to pay less attention to her than they are to their shareholders.

Oliver Letwin is currently reviewing the causes of the planning permission gap. If he finds evidence of unjustifiable delay, I will not rule out any options for ending such practices.

Oooh, I’m so scared.

That may include allowing councils to take a developer’s previous rate of build-out into account when deciding whether to grant planning permission. I want to see planning permissions going to people who are actually going to build houses, not just sit on land and watch its value rise.

That might help a bit, I guess? Developers claim that land banking isn’t a thing, but, well, they would, wouldn’t they?

Still, I’m not sold on the idea it’s going to make a huge difference. Because if it did, house prices would fall, house building would become less profitable, and those volume house builders would just stop buying land for fear they’d lose money on it. And…

Where councils are allocating sufficient land for the homes people need, our new planning rulebook will stop developers building on large sites that aren’t allocated in the plan – something that’s not fair on residents who agree to a plan only to see it ignored.

…reducing the sites on which building can happen probably isn’t going to help either. That, to me, seems likely just to bid up the price of the land included in local plans, which will make the homes built on them more expensive, too.

There are good arguments for stopping developers from ignoring local plans – but, “It’ll make them build more houses!” is absolutely not one of them.

And, by ending abuse of the “viability assessment” process, we’re going to make it much harder for unscrupulous developers to dodge their obligation to build homes local people can afford.

How? How you going to do that? Oh, you’ve already moved on.

This is not an overcrowded nation. Only around 10 per cent of England has been built on. We are not faced with a zero-sum choice between building the homes people need and protecting the open spaces we treasure. That’s why the answer to our housing crisis does not lie in tearing up the Green Belt.

I am shocked. This is my shocked face.

Also why would you quote the figures pointing out how little land has been built on if your conclusion is, “So we mustn’t build on any more”? What’s the logic here?

Planning rules already say that Green Belt boundaries should be changed only in “exceptional circumstances”. But too many local authorities and developers have been taking a lax view of what “exceptional” means. They’ve been allocating Green Belt sites for development as an easy option rather than a last resort.

To prevent this, we’re strengthening existing protections so that authorities can only amend Green Belt boundaries if they can prove they have fully explored every other reasonable option for building the homes their community needs.

Councils do not generally build on their green belts lightly, because doing so is about as popular as scrofula. That makes me suspect that those which do are largely doing so because they don’t have any other options.

So I bet those other reasonable options are getting a lot more explored than May suggests here.

We’ll expect any development, whether in the Green Belt or outside it, to look first at sites that have previously been built on rather than opting immediately for virgin countryside. I’d rather see an ugly, disused power station demolished and replaced with attractive housing than a wood or open field concreted over – even if the former is in the Green Belt and the latter is not.

Well, so would most people. But demolishing an ugly, disused power station, cleaning up the land it sits on and then building attractive housing to replace it is generally an expensive business. Even if developers are up for that, it’ll push them to build more expensive, not more affordable, housing.

But while ownership is a wonderful thing, there is nothing inherently wrong with renting your home. More than a third of English households rent at present, and almost all of us will do so at some point in our lives – I know I have. (…)

Whether you’re renting by choice or necessity, you’re not any less of a person for doing so and you should not be treated as such.

This is such a ludicrously obvious comment that the fact she felt the need to include it feels a lot more telling than the message itself.
Renters, one suspects, know they’re not any less of a person simply because they’re renters. This comment is instead aimed at landlords who think otherwise.

In 2018, in one of the world’s largest, strongest economies, nobody should be without a roof over their head. This isn’t just a British problem – in recent years homelessness has risen across Europe – but it is source of national shame nonetheless.

That’s why we pledged in our manifesto to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it altogether by 2027.

Funny story: the last Labour government effectively did eliminate rough sleeping. Last January, we found out it had risen for the seventh year running.

Can anyone think of anything that might have happened in 2010 that could have caused that reverse?

But the size of the challenge is matched only by the strength of my ambition to tackle it. More home ownership. A rental market that works for tenants. Greater fairness for all.

That is what the people of this country need. That is what will make this a society that truly works for everyone. And, as Prime Minister, that is what I am determined to deliver.

The weird thing is: I sort of believe her. I think Theresa May is genuinely concerned about this, and understands that the housing crisis is a major problem both for the nation and for her party.

Yet there is nothing – nothing! – in this speech to suggest she is prepared to do any of the things that might actually led to a radical increase in build rates. No land reform. No stronger compulsory purchase rules, to enable densification. No council borrowing. Nothing here seems likely to change anything much.


Then again, at least she hasn’t actively made things worse, so for that, at least, we can only be grateful.

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

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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.