Liberal nostrums, relaxation of planning…

Just come from a talk by Henry Overman at LSE and jotting down some reactions. He has that kind of cocky, glib, style of presentation common among liberal (mainstream) economists which I find very hard to challenge in the heat of the session.

As so often, many of the things they say reach conclusions with which I agree, albeit coming from a quite differet position, but other of his conclusions are odious and flimsy. (I’ll put a link to his slides when they appear. Meanwhile this report sounds from the abstract as though it may cover the same ground.)

The core of his argument was a version of the Barker / Ball / Cheshire analysis purporting to show that the high costs of housing / offices in England result from a restrictive planning system. If he had worded it as “a result of the restricted supply of land and buildings (from various sources) confronting the particular structure of demand” it would have been better. But they do leap glefully upon the planning system as the culprit always… Although he had started by saying “we always pull the policy levers in the wrong direction”, which was encouraging, there was nothing on the tax incentives on excess acquisition of housing, nothing on the effects of demand-side subsidies, nothing on family accumulation strategies…

I did manage to say that, even if planning were relaxed, it is inconceivable that the landowners, developers, builders, investment funds etc which control the land and property markets would convert themselves to mass production for a mass market. He did then admit that the whole structure of UK development industry was inappropriate and would have to change, which would take time, but eventually a competitive market would bring prices down… He took the view that this sector’s structure was a response to the planning system…

Nothing at all about demand side factors in housing, except some brief references to easy credit…

[He's basically making a class analysis without acknowledging it: fingering rent and land ownership.]

And he had a diagram, evidently from some work of Cheshire which I hadn’t yet seen, showing retail turnover per unit of floorspace as peaking in 1986 and afterwards falling. He blamed this on the ‘town centre first’ policy starting in 1986. Ben Kochan pointed out that that policy started in 1996 while in 1986 governments were approving malls everywhere. Then someone asked whether the decline in the graph might be because it was turnover per hour while shopping hours were lengthening. Then Overman admitted that he didn’t know what the vertical axis was measuring… It would have been better if Paul Cheshire had given the talk: Paul is always very meticulous and scholarly.

The thing which shows that Overman understands a bit more than his blinkers allow him to say was an aside that, if his recommendations came to pass the strongest objections would be from CBRE etc.

It makes me realise that I must complete my long-parked Leverhulme paper and get it properly distributed.

2 Responses to “Liberal nostrums, relaxation of planning…”

  1. Ossie says:

    Yeah you must. Remind me to remind you of that next time I see you.

  2. Claire C says:

    I saw Overman give a keynote speech at the ERSA conference in Barcelona in September this year, in a session on “do we need place based policies?”, where he argued along similar lines that we do not need spatial redistribution at the regional level and that the South-East of England should let the North rot as people should be mobile and move with their feet to where jobs and skills are… I found it very hard to contain my anger at his talk, in part due to his anti-public policy attitude, in part as a sociologist: when i challenged his assumptions about individual mobility during the question time (arguing that existing class and educational inequalities, and a sense of rootedness in place, make the theoretical labour mobility that classical economists advocate impossible / a fraught idea / maybe undesirable too) he ripped me off into pieces… We definitely need to strengthen our arguments in an economic language that can challenge this kind of discourse on its own ground… eagerly waiting for your Leverhulme paper!!!

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