Disruptive Ideas for Housing Land & Infrastructure

by Ken Gibb

I chaired a panel session this week at the annual Homes for Scotland conference in Edinburgh. The idea was that our four speakers would consider land and infrastructure challenges around the risks and opportunities created by disruptive changes. These disruptions are novel ways of delivering housing, changing how funding and infrastructure is done in order to deliver more housing that is less expensive and can, arguably, and to different degrees, alter the way our housing system functions.

The populariser of the disruptive innovation concept, Clayton Christiansen, argued that small scale innovators take root and outcompete incumbents. They are, in other words, a silent but growing threat to business as usual. In this context innovations aimed at either using land value uplift capture through planning law reform to fund new infrastructure (rather than from scarce public finances); or, separating out land and infrastructure (into a common good fund underpinned by a state guarantee) and a separate element for the build cost – serves to offer a threat to the status quo business model of land oriented speculative housing developers.

The planning reform proposal, from Thomas Aubrey at the Centre for Progressive Capitalism, and the plan to separate out land & infrastructure from bricks & mortar (Matthew Benson from Rettie and Co) were the central examples provided of disruptive challenge in the panel session.

They entered this lion’s den this morning on the premise that the current housing system is broken – new housing needs to be affordable or at least considerably less costly, there needs to be much more of it and infrastructure critically needs to be funded upfront to facilitate new home development. Typically, in the UK, unlike much of continental Europe, this is funded by central government in different ways and from a range of government departments. It is typically not, and despite initiatives like community infrastructure levy, in the form of capturing (part of) land value uplift on the granting of planning permission.

There is thus a public finance argument in favour of such a shift – a charge or tax could in principle reduce the requirements on public revenues to pay for new infrastructure. Second, lower priced housing costs and the development of the long term funded investment in a common future fund – could reduce the cost of housing over time and again reduce important aspects of the housing budget (ie by reducing unit costs). As my colleague Christine Whitehead has often said, one measure of good housing policy is its capacity to reduce the cost of housing to households and the tax payer.

Our first speaker, Nicola Woodward (Lichfields), went further and argued that new housing and an efficient housing stock, are essential economic infrastructure, vital to growth and productivity. My colleague Duncan Maclennan has been making this argument for some time and indeed goes on to argue that benefit-cost ratio metrics that propose large productivity impacts for things like transport investment are often mis-specified and overstate value relative to housing investments and which in turn are often understated. This is partly about attribution i.e. increased densities attribute to transport rather than housing social returns, but also due to a failure to properly consider the counterfactual i.e. the cost to the economy of not investing in housing. Duncan’s argument, till now at least, seem to have been more positively received in other places like Canada and Australia than here.

What about the critical responses? One interesting response from the panel was that those who might feel that these sorts of new models or reforms to planning would damage the interests of the existing players – were essentially missing the point in that the objective is to improve the working of the housing system. There will be losers and they will typically be loud while winners will probably only whisper at best. So, the political economy of pursuing this credibly is both interesting and challenging. Two possibilities suggested were, one, to set up demonstration pilots; or, second, to attempt forms of innovation in planned new towns.

It might be pointed out second that using funds from value uplift for new infrastructure for roads, schools, water, etc. means those funds cannot be used for S75 affordable housing. On the other hand, as Matthew Benson pointed out, his model could be applied to any tenure mix including social housing and it would all be cheaper than the current new supply status quo. A worry was also expressed that this class of reforms might impact on house prices, though the direction of impact was not completely clear to me. Benson argued in any case that house prices are dominated by the existing stock and the proposals suggested would not in reality be big enough to affect the overall housing market.

Will these or other similar ideas actually disrupt land and planning to support more, less costly, housing supply work? How will they relate to wider community plans, the work of the new Scottish Land Commission and the upcoming planning legislation coming in Scotland? Some of these ideas are not unlike more traditional disruptive ideas like land community truss. Perhaps we therefore need a suite of ideas that can be used at different times across our range of market contexts. I am sure the debate will continue.