Here’s my account of appearing before the House of Lords select committee enquiry into the economics of the UK's housing market on 23rd February.
RTPI submitted its evidence to the committee in December 2015, in order to lay down a marker in respect of the value of planning. We were not particularly hopeful of an invitation to appear before the committee this time. Having given evidence quite a few times to select committees and parliamentary all party groups, I was surprised to feel a fair degree of apprehension in January this year when the committee clerk rang and I was invited to give evidence.
This is an economics rather than directly planning or delivery focused committee. It has a formidable membership including an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, an ex-head of the civil service, ex-Secretary of State for Scotland, former ambassador, former MEP, former head of the TUC, a senior journalist an academic, and business heavyweights. The enquiry is also being advised by Professor Christine Whitehead of the London School of Economics, who I have enormous respect for. So clearly the committee would be on its metal – and witnesses would need to be too.
Unlike a House of Commons select committee, I discovered I was to be on a panel of two rather than the more normal four, meaning greater scrutiny but also a greater opportunity to present the planning perspective. I was to appear with Professor Tony Crook, who whilst a Trustee of the RTPI was appearing in his own right. This was encouraging in that Tony is a good speaker with a commanding knowledge based on both his academic research and practical experience. Our session was to follow a Lords double act of expert witnesses Lord Bob Kerslake, who gave a stimulating annual lecture for us last November on planning and housing, and Lord Gary Porter of the LGA, who knows his stuff and is also politically influential.
As with any exam or inquiry or viva, preparation is all. My approach is always to start by reminding myself of what the select committee are exploring, the questions they asked in the call for evidence and what our evidence was.
If planning is considered only as a reactive, regulatory function, then we will continue to see under-delivery of house building, ever-higher house prices in some areas, and all of the economic and social consequences that flow from this.
Next up is reading evidence submitted by others. Of course this included the inevitable suggestions that the failure to house the nation over the last 30 years is down to planning. I then moved on to reading the evidence sessions so far published. This is illuminating not only in terms of who on the committee is asking what but also what they have already been told – including a useful point from the House Building Federation’s director of economic affairs that starter homes risk replacing other affordable housing.
With members of the team here we then mapped out areas I was likely to face questions on, such as resources, local plan preparation, incentives, the new homes bonus, the impact of planning constraints, price and land value capture and green belts. We also looked at what we’ve said in our policy and research papers, consultation responses and evidence to other committees and inquiries. For example, we had recently submitted evidence to the Local Plans expert group and were finalising our response to the DCLG consultation on the National Planning Policy, following extensive engagement with our England Policy Panel and wider membership. In addition there was our work on the Housing and Planning Bill, and our election asks for the Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the London Mayoral election.
I thought carefully about the messages I really wanted to leave the committee with: the need for a properly resourced planning system; the positive economic value of planning; the case for holist strategic and proper planning; and the skill sets of planners as part of the solution rather than the problem. If planning is considered only as a reactive, regulatory function, then we will continue to see under-delivery of house building, ever-higher house prices in some areas, and all of the economic and social consequences that flow from this.
Instead, planning is a potentially significant and greatly underused tool for increasing the supply of more housing, including more affordable housing. Our focus instead should then be to improve development markets through a proactive role for planning, in order to ensure the increased delivery of good quality places with an adequate supply of housing, good employment opportunities and so on. Planning should be central to both increasing supply and ensuring that supply is of a quality and economic relevance to market actors to deliver market stability. This was overlaid by numerous detailed policy positions and ideas that the RTPI has developed and promoted.
The clerk to the committee then gave us a list of potential areas that the committee might wish to explore based on all that had gone before. This ranged from green belts to local government’s record on small sites. I spent the weekend before the hearing re-reading all of our work on this area.
Trudi Elliott giving evidence before the committee.
On the day I arrived early so as to watch Lords Porter and Kerslake, who among other things gave a strong defence of planning. It all went by very quickly. After the first question I enjoyed myself – after all, I was talking about things we are passionate about.
Several weeks later an email arrives with the draft, which you have to swiftly correct. This is when you find out whether it came over as you hoped. I made some small corrections (did I really say the word ‘bonkers’ in relation to planning fee arrangements?) I hope we did our members and planning justice. Have a read for yourself and be the judge.
The experience underlined how much stronger our arguments for the positive contribution planning can make are when we have a body of evidence to back them up. We will be shortly publishing further research, including a study on the location of new housing development, on poverty and inequality, and further work on how we can better realise the value of planning in practice.
In the meantime, if you’ve missed them, you can read some of the work that informed my evidence to the committee below.
Investing in Delivery: How we can respond to the pressures on local authority planning (Arup, October 2015)
Wales: Process for Developing Housing Evidence for LDPS (Cardiff University, January 2016)
Delivering Large Scale Housing (September 2013)
Strategic Planning (January 2015)
The Value of Planning (University of Sheffield/University of Glasgow, June 2014)
Planning as 'Market Maker': How planning is used to stimulate development in Germany, France and the Netherlands (University of Liverpool, November 2015)
The Gorals Regeneration – Delivering economic value through planning (June 2015)
Can investments in planning deliver economic benefits to private citizens? (February 2016)
Creating Economically Successful Places (November 2014)
Understanding recent changes in household formation rates and their implications for planning for housing (University of Cambridge, January 2014)
Success and Innovation in Planning – Creating Public Value (Newcastle University, November 2014)
Promoting Healthy Cities (October 2014)