Every week seems to present us with fresh evidence of the follies of centralisation.
We’ve become used to talking about this in relation to COVID-19, but of course it’s much broader than that as I was reminded at a discussion about the Government’s Planning for the Future White Paper, the consultation on which closed at the end of last month.
It’s fair to say, I think, that local government is not impressed. We know, of course, that we have a long-standing housing crisis in this country which displays multiple forms of dysfunctionality.
We are around 200,000 houses a year short of what we need and the relationship of house prices to income in many parts of the country is insanely out of kilter.
We know from our research at the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) that the process of agreeing local plans has been patchy, and there are huge issues bringing small sites into land supply. We know councillors do not feel in control in any case and see developers and central government as far more powerful actors in the planning system. We know that the private rental sector needs reform and the local housing allowance is a blunt tool: too low in much of the country, too high in other places.
And that leads directly to the very greatest dysfunction: the sharp rise in people who don’t have homes at all.
Faced with all of this we can see the temptation to centralise and manage: make councils build houses, sweep aside red tape and NIMBYism. Various governments have flirted with this and the current White Paper is a further step in this direction.
Why is that a mistake? Let’s note in passing that councils can actually get stuff done: 14,000 people moved into emergency accommodation at the beginning of the pandemic for example. More importantly, the White Paper aims at the wrong target; ‘planning red tape’ and ‘council bureaucracy’ are convenient scapegoats, but they’re really not the obstacle to housebuilding.
As the Local Government Association (LGA) has pointed out there are a million unbuilt homes that already have planning permission. But it’s easier to point the finger at councils than to engage with the underlying structural and economic conditions – if developers are not building it’s because of financing and profitability not because of planning.
The White Paper doesn’t address issues in the private rental sector. If families are insecure in rented homes that’s because of the types of tenancies they have not because of planning.
And it takes a one dimensional, bricks and mortar view of housing: build stuff and people will live in it.
But we’re not really talking about houses we’re talking about homes. Homes that people want to live in and that other people want near them. Homes that are connected to places and which enhance the places they’re in. Homes in which people are happy, flourish and contribute to their communities.
Shelter is a basic human need – but homes provide so much more than that.
And that means you need a different type of conversation – one which is not just about how many houses you build, but about quality and connectivity, about community and place, and the character of place. Not just about planning, but about local economic development, public service ecosystems and the public realm more broadly.
You can’t have that conversation from a control room in Whitehall.
What’s most depressing of all, perhaps, is the insight these plans give us into the Government’s view of councils: essentially an irritant, or a blockage, to be circumvented.
We’ve seen a similar disregard for local government in the handling of the pandemic.
That wouldn’t matter so much, perhaps, if these centralised systems worked spectacularly well. But they don’t. In planning, as with the pandemic, centralisation is a mistake: a political mistake because it alienates the government’s own base, a moral mistake because it disenfranchises local people and a practical mistake, because it just won’t work.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of the LGIU