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The government’s Localism agenda will lead to far fewer homes being built over the coming years a new study has revealed. Regional Spatial Strategies – designed by the last government to ensure that enough new homes are built are to be scrapped, and councils will be be able to set their own targets. The study, by BNP Paribas, estimates that 31,000 fewer homes will be built as a result.
This, surely is a disaster. We often talk about the horror of high house prices as though it were an act of god. Yet the rocketing costs of both renting and owning reflect basic realities about supply and demand: as the population has increased, and has households have got smaller, supply has been strangled by a tough, nimby-enabling planning system – and if this study is correct, then the supply of housing is to be kept in check even more stringently.
This is, in fact, not only a disaster, but a predictable disaster. Localism is a fine idea – but applied to the field of housing it creates a great democratic deficit. The main problem is this: most new housing developements have social costs – increased traffic, crowdedness etc. – as well as huge social benefits – like the fact that people have somewhere to live. Now think about it from the point of view of a locally elected council. Say a London borough council was to give the go ahead to a big new development. All of the costs will accrue specifically to those who live in the area, and who have the capacity to vote the council out of office. Yet all of the benefits would effectively be dispersed across London, since anyone can move into them, regardless of whether they live in the borough. As such, local government is almost compelled to give excessive consideration to the costs over any benefits.
Meanwhile a council representing a sparsely populated borough is able to exercise control over far more land, relative to each person that it represents than an urban borough council. Whatever the merits of “localism” – a specious concept if ever there was one – control over the development of housing cannot rightly be seen as a local prerogative. The tendency of some rural localities to keep housing to an absolute minimum has repercussions well beyond their boundaries. As a society we need to decide how many roving fields we are willing prioritise over decent housing and affordable rents. By dissolving the matter into the politics of localism, the coalition have given their answer, but in a manner that is somewhat less than forthcoming.
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