Alex Massie

Housing: the south’s difficulty is the north’s opportunity - Spectator Blogs

Housing: the south's difficulty is the north's opportunity - Spectator Blogs
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Three cheers for Isabel's post on the difficulties Nick Boles faces in pushing through his plans to make is slightly easier to build houses in Britain. I would add only this: people who already own their houses have more power and much greater access to important media outlets than people who do not own their own homes.

Today's wrangling about planning reminds me I meant to write something about Neil O'Brien's excellent recent Spectator article on the north-south divide. To put the matter in the broadest terms, the south's difficulty is the north's opportunity. As O'Brien wrote:

The North can gain advantage where it offers something the South doesn’t. Take Preston. It was a surprising boom town, achieving the third-fastest rate of private sector job creation in England during the first ten years of Labour. Why? Failed plans for ‘Central Lancashire New Town’ left behind loads of land with planning permission agreed — making it the ideal place to locate a new business. When the South is being sniffy about building in its green and pleasant vales, the North should turn southern nimbyism to its advantage. [...] There are lots of opportunities if we work with, not against, market forces.

I had no idea Preston had fared so well in the 1997-2007 period. But it shows what can be done by liberalising planning regulations. Zoning is a form of regulatory capture, after all.

It is, of course, complicated but, nevertheless, making it easier to locate businesses in the north by easing planning restrictions is one part of "rebalancing" the British economy and reducing the corrupting influence of London and the south-east. It may be that the centuries-old pattern of people flocking to London in search of work cannot easily be reversed but there must, in theory at any rate, come a point when housing in the south-east becomes so expensive that even confirmed southerners might be tempted to look north for fairer prospects.

Of course were they to do so they would need somewhere to live. But just as opening land for development could, again notionally at least, make the north a more attractive location for business investment so easing restrictions on housing development could give - and subsequently reinforce - a comparative advantage to England's great northern cities.

As for London: one long-term ploy to ease its housing crisis and, potentially anyway, alleviate some of its transport woes would be to build Boris's ballyhooed new airport in the Thames Estuary. That could conceivably create room for housing for some 150,000 people on the present Heathrow site while also, usefully, giving Britain a better hub airport than Heathrow can ever aspire to be.

Again, that's a difficult project and, perhaps, a difficult sell too. But if you want to make it possible for people to purchase houses - and all parties appear to agree this would be a Good Thing - then something has to give. Simplifying the planning process and, in places, scrapping zoning altogether may be one part of the solution to what is, granted, a complicated problem.

The north of England, however, should seize the opportunity granted it by southern Nimbyism. Build, build, build and let the businesses - and the people - come. It might be a stretch to say the north could be Texas to London's New York City but, in theory at least, some of the same principles that have made Texas a beacon for internal migration in the United States could apply in this country, albeit on a suitably smaller scale.

Now if only Yorkshire had a parliament of its own that could deliver upon this kind of promise...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.