A lesson in planning from the Germans?

We will probably never experience a totally pain free development process in this country; nimbyism has become too ingrained in our culture. However, we could go a long way towards reducing the almost universal resistance we currently experience, to new housing, by actually delivering the high quality development, instead of just talking about it.

The question is, how do you ‘force’ developers to build homes that have suitable room sizes, enough inside storage, outside storage for wheelie bins and bicycles, sufficient off street parking – and of course, look good?

In defence of developers, they often start on the back foot, by paying too much for the land they want to build on.  It’s easy to suggest that this is the developers’ fault and that they should just refuse to pay the inflated prices demanded by the landowners.  However, developers have businesses to run and would soon be on the breadline if they held out for a more sensible price, as there will always be another developer willing to pay.

So what’s the answer? Whilst there are many who distrust much about Europe – mainly because of the EU – we do admire much of what the Germans do and the way they do it. As well as their black and white traffic laws, highly efficient manufacturing base and litter free streets, the Germans also seem to have a planning system, that delivers high quality housing.

They do this is two ways. Firstly, they use zones of development, within which building can take place without the need to go through the sort of planning processes we use in this country. Of course, underpinning these zones, there are a raft of design and development guides, that have to be applied to the build.

The second thing they do and the one that must surely allow them to deliver high quality development, along with the required infrastructure and facilities, is exercise a degree of control on the price of land.  They do this by ensuring that there is enough of it available to satisfy demand, thereby avoiding the sort of price inflation that always happens when something is in short supply and high demand.

I suspect the present government has attempted to mimic the German system to some extent, by requiring all local authorities to have a Local Plan identifying a five year supply of housing land.   In addition to this five year land supply, councils must also have an ‘objectively assessed need’ of what housing is required for their area.   In practical terms, this means that the council can’t just produce a Local Plan and stick it on a shelf the next 20 years, as seems to be the passed practice.

Of course, this housing needs assessment and five year housing land supply requirement has not gone down well with the majority of councils, especially those in areas where house prices are high, such as the south east and rural areas adjacent to large cities.

The politicians in these councils are screaming blue murder about concreting over the countryside, the loss of the green belt and urban sprawl, all this whilst ignoring the increasing demand for housing and the ever increasing difficult for young people trying to get on the housing ladder.

Frustratingly, the government has failed to explain the thinking behind the changes introduced by the National Planning Policy Framework, fuelling the suspicion that these changes are more about the bank accounts of the developers, than providing homes that people can afford. This suspicion is further reinforced, by the trump card government handed to developers, in the form of a viability test.

The viability argument allows developers to wriggle out of providing affordable housing, community facilities and just about anything else they believe will, according to them, make the development financially unviable. Which of course rolls us all the way back to the price paid for the land in the first place. If you provide enough of anything to satisfy the demand, then the cost of the commodity on offer, in this case land, not only remains stable , but often reduces in real terms. Clearly, we’re not ‘making’ any more land, so it has its own dynamic when it comes to value. As such, it wouldn’t be helpful to compare it to something that was in the past expensive to produce and therefore expensive to buy, but now has become affordable to all, such as the simple cup of tea, but it does help to set the scene. Provide enough of anything and then make it readily available to those who want it and the price of it finds an affordable level. That seems to be the very simple rule the Germans have used.

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