According to Ruth Davidson, the housing crisis can’t be solved through metaphors alone. Questioning whether Brexit negotiations will dominate every conversation, Davison asked: “has any sunlight managed to get down to the forest floor – allowing other, less dominant issues, to grow and flourish?”
In a recent speech, Davidson highlighted that just 16,000 are being built a year in Scotland – almost half the amount promised by the SNP in 2007. The planning process has also slowed. “The latest figures show that major development decisions were slower by an average of six weeks per application last year, compared to the year before,” Davison said.
Davidson outlined plans to accelerate housing delivery in Scotland, starting with the creation of a new national Housing and Infrastructure Agency to be tasked with delivering the basic infrastructure – the roads and public services – around which new housing can be built.
“A single Agency could be called on by local authorities to help them tackle these infrastructure challenges,” she said. “It could, for example, issue developer infrastructure loans, to help developers pay the upfront costs of new roads, schools or sewage works, to be paid back by builders over the long term.
“If we really do want housing to become a national priority, then the man or woman delivering it should be at the cabinet table.”
Secondly, Davidson proposed that self-built homes could play a bigger role in the housing market. “In Germany, France and Italy, 60% of homes are self-built. In the USA and Australia, it is 40%. In the UK, by contrast, the figure is just 10%,” she said. “Is it any wonder that we are sceptical about new developments in this country when so much of it feels imposed on us, not designed by us?”
In Scotland, the SNP Government is piloting simplified planning zones – where planning permission is waived for certain types of development. Davidson believes this should be expanded across the country.
“Currently, the planning system has it all the way wrong. All construction is prohibited and you cannot build unless and until you have permission to do so. What about freeing up land across Scotland where you flip that on its head?
“Where, within certain parameters about building regulations plus the size and design of a property, you can go ahead as you wish? This model is being trialled across Europe – where small scale developers and individuals buy so-called plot passports in designated areas, and then are allowed to proceed as they want,” Davidson said.
However, such self-build projects are never going to meet the deep needs of the housing crisis. Davidson’s third proposal revives the idea of new towns.
The original new towns programme in Britain saw 32 new urban developments being constructed which today provide homes for some 2.5 million people. In Scotland, five new towns were constructed: East Kilbride, Glenrothes, Cumbernauld, Livingston and Irvine.
A report for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has proposed that, today, as many as six to eight new communities are required across Scotland. “It is time to seize the moment – and look at a series of new generation new towns,” said Davidson.
The big question, of course, is the question of land – and affordable land, at that. Institutions as varied as Shelter and the Adam Smith Institute have supported a reform so that local authorities get powers to buy land at current use value – and then keep the profit when that land value increases following planning. When realised, that profit can then be used to spend on affordable housing, new roads and better infrastructure.
It was this financial model that allowed Prince Charles to invest heavily in the new Poundbury village in Dorset. It’s one we should look at too. It’s a model that is widespread across Europe and Asia as a way to unlock start up capital to get new development off the ground.
Housing and planning is not an abstract policy area,” Davidson said. “When we talk about housing, we are not simply talking about bricks and mortar. We are talking about the building blocks of our society.”