Opinion: “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore”

By Jock Coats

We’re often told that the answer to our housing problems lies not in special schemes – such as, ironically, promises to build a million new social homes – but in freeing up planning laws to allow for more land to supply the demand.

The corollary to that, of course, is that many people don’t want to see yet more urban sprawl, even though most don’t really appreciate that to build a million new homes on virgin land (if that’s what it came to) would in fact use up only around one-tenth of one per cent of currently agricultural land.

The current system allows for a limited release of new land for housing through the local planning process. An undignified rabble of rent-seekers and their highly paid advisers assail local authorities every few years begging that their patch of urban fringe be the one chosen to rise in value by up to five hundred times its agricultural rate. So the derision of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) at the Lib Dems’ restatement today of our two year old policy of Community Land Auctions (also CLA) falls on deaf ears.

There has to be some mechanism for controlling and democratizing the release of land for new uses and the land auction proposal seems to do that very well. Instead of one or two land owners being handed a vast windfall merely by dint of local representatives saying so, any landowner around a settlement could put in sealed bids to supply land, effectively at “hope value”.

After considering all the offers – judging them by location, proximity to existing infrastructure, potential for diminution of amenity value of green belts and such like; and, most importantly, how well housing would fit into adjoining mature communities – the wider community, which by its planning decision actually creates the added value, will be able to capture most of that uplift in value above what the landowner is willing to sell at, and use the proceeds for affordable housing, infrastructure, and yes, even perhaps reducing the council tax, if that’s the local priority.

Community Land Auctions tick a lot of the right boxes.

1. They bust the quasi-monopoly power of urban fringe landowners in which those with the best paid advisers win a fantastic lottery prize the likes of which us mere mortals can only imagine.

2. They give the community more control over the priorities and locations for the release of additional land to the planning system.

3. And they give the community the opportunity to share the benefit of their decision with the land owner who gets the price he wants (or loses the auction) – after all nobody’s forcing them to bid.

So, when David Fursdon, President of that other CLA, says the system [is] “open to so much abuse” as councils would be deciding whether to grant permission for schemes that would make them huge sums of money, we ought to remember that it’s no more abusive than the periodic rent seeking process that goes on now in which the landowner makes those “huge sums of money” at the expense of everyone else. Especially the most needy, the homeless.

* Jock Coats is a former Lib Dem councillor, and one of the founders of The 1909 Group. He blogs here.

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11 Comments

  • <rolls eyes>

    Do you really think that Ming sat down and wrote this policy all on his own? Much as I’d love to think of him as a Goliath of policy-making, in reality all sorts of people (both volunteers and staff) contribute to developing policy and planning an announcement like this. Housing is a complicated issue. There’s no reason to think either the content or the presentation of it would have been markedly different under anyone else.

    We’re not going to change leader – get used to it.

  • Maybe if Tim’s still reading this, were you involved in condensing the CLA idea down into two sentences for a press release note? If not, why on earth don’t we do that – get the inventor to describe his or her invention, with guidance for the non-media savvy if needed.

  • Hywel Morgan 14th Jun '07 - 10:17pm

    “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore”

    Apart from Dubai that is 🙂

  • Fran, I have a feeling from what you describe this may be Tony Benn’s previous attempt to do what the recently proposed “Planning Gain Supplement” was supposed to do. And I’m surprised, if it is that, that you say it worked. I was under the impression that it failed because land did not come forward (if it is what I am thinking about its failure was used in everyone’s campaign against PGS). I think that is different from Community Land Auctions personally which will really be aimed at land currently in a lower value use class wanting to achieve an uplift by rezoning.

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