The Evening Standard in London solicited a letter from me. In the end they didn’t print it (no hard feelings) so here it is for a select readership. [Later: they printed a précis later – see end.]
The coalition is like an emperor with no clothes, now reaching for a loin cloth. Having followed policies the exact opposite of what we needed to lower the ratio of debt to GDP, it now finds debt still rising and GDP still falling while the misery of austerity continues to take its awful toll on low and middle-income Britons.
Yes housing is in a crisis and yes a massive increase in infrastructure investment would help to put their disasters into reverse. But these proposals are a tiny softening of the deflationary storm and are likely to have some perverse effects.
The relaxation of the requirements local authorities impose for affordable housing in development schemes threatens to rob us of what little new affordable housing we do produce. They say they are doing it to improve the viability of stalled schemes. Indeed it will, but developers may just switch their energies to those schemes and away from others. There is no sign of a radical surge of demand which would make it profitable for builders to produce much more. There is no evidence that total output will increase – and the government doesn’t seem to have extracted any promises in exchange for their new deal. Most seriously, however, the measure will have an effect on land prices. What the country needs for a just and sustainable housing system is for land prices to fall substantially and then remain stable in the long run. Larger scale housebuilding (public and private) could then resume. The relaxation of the social housing percentage will help bolster land prices and is the last thing we need. The main beneficiaries will be the owners of land banks.
The relaxed rules on back extensions for semis and detached houses is a bizarre move from a Conservative Party. It is hard and slow to get permission for large extensions. That’s not because planners are lazy or obstructive. It’s because people who live next door seek to protect their roses, daylight, sunlight and privacy and local planning policies and local politicians have responded to those views. You could say that a long-established localism is now being replaced by a central government diktat. The government can’t be accused of pandering to suburban voters – quite the reverse – and the big construction firms who support the Tories are not equipped to build thousands of back extensions. So it’s hard to understand their thinking.
The infrastructure proposals are not so bizarre. A lot of social and physical infrastructure is needed and the government’s cuts in these last few years have been disastrous. But we need the employment and growth effects urgently so they should begin by re-starting the schools programme and NHS projects, doing small upgrades to the railway system to remove bottlenecks and resume investment in people through EMA. Those projects are ready to roll. The obsession with mega-projects which take years to plan is a great mistake.
It does all look like a panic reaction. If the Labour Party were not almost as bad on austerity and debt we should be seeking an election. The Green Party is looking good but doesn’t seem big enough or strong enough yet to take over. It’s hard to find grounds for optimism.
Correction made ESA > EMA thanks to @ProjectMimique for pointing it out.
A day or two later they printed a reasonable summary: