The Scottish Government has its five-year target of 50,000 new social and affordable homes and is exploring ways that the sector might overcome bottlenecks and impediments to the required levels of new build. Not surprisingly, there has been a focus on the supply delivery system, planning, the development industry and the land market. Scotland has recently had an independent review of the planning system chaired by Crawford Beveridge and earlier inquiries by RICS Scotland and by the Shelter Commission on Housing and Wellbeing. Now, as a sidebar to the recent proposed reforms of the council tax, it has been suggested that the Scottish Government would consult on the efficacy of a tax on vacant and derelict land, so as to incentivise the supply of housing land from those relatively untapped sources. This follows on the recent introduction of a similar levy on such land in Ireland.
This was the context for a roundtable discussion I attended Tuesday morning about the pros and cons of such a tax chaired by the minister and populated by stakeholders across the housing supply delivery system, professionals, policy, academics and practice. It followed the Chatham House Rule so I will simply reflect on themes expressed around the table.
The meeting was structured around three key questions: why can’t we deliver more housing supply; would a tax on vacant & derelict land help; what other policy instruments might help? There was a wide range of views on show both in terms of diagnosis and what needs to be done.
Regarding what prevents housing land supply coming forward more speedily, there was (unresolved) disagreement over whether or not speculative land banking played a part. Other culprits were identified as high levels of risk, infrastructure constraints, construction capacity questions, the reduction in SME builders since the crisis, the cost of decontamination many derelict sites relative to the funds available, and lack of access to sufficient affordable land – amongst several other issues. Underlying much of what was said was the continuing large discrepancy between the volume of housing land with consents in the housing land supply figures and the much lower number of what actually gets completed. How do we rectify this and what quantitative significance does vacant and derelict land play as part of this story?
Contemplating a tax on vacant and derelict land means having clear definitions of what it means to be derelict or vacant and targeting the tax appropriately. That is not easy. Assuming that it can be done the tax would have to overcome a series of standard hurdles: the tax should be cheap to set up and run, it should be simple, transparent and be credible as a fair burden. It should also minimise wider distortions or unintended consequences. I argued that if these criteria could be met through careful design, the tax should also possess local discretion so that the nuances of locally heterogeneous markets could to an extent be addressed. Overall, a wide range of views were expressed about the feasibility and desirability of such a tax.
In the course of the discussion a number of important wider points were made. First, there is of course a major issue about dereliction in our town centres and working on creating residential demand and solutions for these properties could play an important role in the future of many urban areas across Scotland. Second, there was a sense in some quarters that derelict and vacant land was a part of the problem of land supply for housing but it should not be over-cooked against the wider questions of how we best deliver on new housing targets. One view was that there was essentially nothing that far wrong with the planning systems aims and goals but there was a too common failure to actually deliver the housing delivery public policy outcomes we desire – and we need a range of mechanisms to make that happen.
How might this be done? First, there was discussion of the prospect that planning permission might be taken away on a site if it is not used. This is often discussed but of course there are dangers here – the site may nonetheless be a viable site and its development will be delayed and, moreover, by taking consent away, the effective housing land supply is actually being reduced. Second, there was discussion of national and regional land development agencies that could overcome market failures by delivering serviced affordable land for housing. To that end I would also support local revolving land funds that could do the same once they are pump-primed with initial funding. Third, it was suggested that the state can borrow over much longer periods than the private sector and should do more to exploit this by playing a larger role as an investor in infrastructure versus the relatively short run requirements of market sector developers and that, furthermore, there was an appetite for this long term state investment debt from pension funds.
Finally, there was debate about whether the local state has the capacity and even the confidence to use its existing powers, notably CPO as a way of braking log jams, assembling land and moving sites forward. Several speakers stressed the opportunity to use compulsory sales of land which has the added advantage that it is far cheaper to do in terms of transaction costs than CPOs from the point of view of local government.
Plenty of those present brought specific experienced examples to the table to make their arguments. Only one academic brought detailed research evidence (it was not me). One takeaway point for me from the debate in public policymaking terms, therefore, was that the Scottish Government still has an exercise ahead of it to collect different forms of rigorous evidence as well as this distillation of key stakeholder views – before decisions are taken about the direction of, and specific instruments for, a policy aimed at successfully expanding housing land supply and completions.