Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by Mr Lachlan Robertson (AH 08)


  This response deals with two of the 10 issues raised by the Committee; on how the planning system should respond to the demand for housing and the impact that that large scale housing would have. It sets out to show that a national policy is required on intra-regional migration, associated economic growth and consequently the location of housing. It also suggests that the needs of local areas for affordable housing is generally well known and can show the scale of housing growth that would be required if present policies remain unchanged. In sensitive areas, this would have a damaging impact on the natural and historic environment and demand massive investment in infrastructure provision.


  2.  My name is Lachlan Robertson and I am the Head of North Wiltshire District Council's Spatial Planning Team. I am responsible for the production of all Spatial Planning documents for this area and give advice relating to the Council's development plans duties under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and related legislation.

  3.  I possess degrees in Town and Regional Planning and Urban Design and I am a Member of the Royal Town Planning Institute. I am a Member of the management team that delivered some of the highest awards from the Planning Delivery Grant in recent years and which was cited by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister as an example of good quality planning in the field of Culture Change.

  4.  I have over 22 years experience in the main areas of delivering a Planning Service (both in Development Control and Plan making) and it is on this basis that I offer evidence to the Committee. These views are given in a professional capacity and are not intended to represent the views of my employer.


  6.  It is my intention to offer evidence in respect of the following issues:

    —  How the planning system should respond to the demand for housing for sale; and

    —  the scale of housing development required to influence house prices and the impact of promoting such a programme on the natural and historical environment and infrastructure provision.


  8.  It is a common truism, often expressed, that land is a scarce resource . . . because they don't make it anymore. Therefore, for as long as people have gathered into settled communities some form of "planning" has taken place whether it be for defensive purposes, the physical manifestation of power relationships, promotion of trade, religious control or cultural expression. (Mumford, 1961). There is also some evidence that the form of our settlements can be seen as a natural geometric expression of in-built human traits (Hanson and Hillier, 1984) from which we might conclude that we get the towns and cities we deserve.

  9.  If the act of "Planning" is meaningful, it is an act where conscious thought is applied to all of the above pressures that lead to the shape and form of our spaces. In the UK in the post-war period this was seen initially as an act to reconstruct a war-damaged society, then as a "balancing" of competing interests by the hand of a benign government and more recently as a means of promoting a more "sustainable" society that protects the interests of our descendants. At no time have we determined that no conscious thought would be applied. We have, in our present and re-vamped Planning System, an opportunity to apply sophisticated conscious thought, however imperfectly, to a modern complex set of interrelationships that lead to problems that need to be solved.

  10.  And the problem we have today is the same one that we have always had . . . we are not building enough houses for those who need them and for those who demand them.

  11.  North Wiltshire lies in a prosperous part of the UK, with good communication links to both the cities and large towns of the South East and West. It is also within or close to particularly attractive areas of countryside being on the fringes of the Cotswolds and the North Wessex Downs Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The newly designated New Forest National Park is less than one hour's drive away and there are significant retail and cultural centres close-by at Salisbury and Bath. It is therefore an area where there is a high demand for housing. This is largely driven by inward migration: North Wiltshire expanded in population by 11% in the 10 years between 1991 and 2001. The prospect is that this demand will continue at the same rate over the next 20 years if it were not for the fact that measures to limit this growth are being put in place.

  12.  The emerging Regional Spatial Strategy for the South-West is moving towards a position where this restriction is precisely what will be proposed. It is proposing that the larger cities be allowed to grow at much greater historic levels than the past and that there is much less growth in the rural areas than previously occurred.

  13.  The present government appears to be contemplating, as promoted in the Barker Report, that the private housing market be harnessed to the task of delivering greater numbers of housing. Marry this to the emerging South West Regional Spatial Strategy and the inherent attractiveness of our "in demand" areas to inward-migration, then problems start to emerge.

  14.  Firstly, housebuilders will focus their attention to building on the edges of those towns and cities that are allowed to grow. In my experience, they find it very difficult to accept housebuilding on brownfield sites, cite greater costs of doing so, rebuff attempts to open their books to Planners to prove such costs exist and reduce the amount of money that is available to finance the necessary infrastructure provision. In Swindon, for example, despite the best attempts of the, admittedly embryonic, New Swindon Company, people turn away from living in the town centre and prefer to spend their money on housing elsewhere; preferably in the surrounding small towns and villages and, if forced to, on the edges of the sprawling town.

  15.  Secondly, in those surrounding towns where housing growth is restricted but inward migration is not, two related problems emerge: house prices rise and affordability drops. Indeed the inward migrants of the past have partly fuelled the demand for affordable housing in the present. This has already happened to the extent that North Wiltshire has calculated that it requires the building of 780 subsidised (ie affordable) houses each year for the next five years just to keep up with the need. This is higher than total housebuilding within the District of any year within the past two decades.

  16.  Thirdly, this puts considerable pressure on the very aspects of the District that are attractive: its rivers dry through abstraction, its landfill areas expand, its gravel extraction increases, its community services creak, its road network congests, its natural landscapes erode, its tranquil areas disappear, its historic character is subject to inappropriate change.

  17.  The root cause of this is population growth through inward migration. It is a matter that must be dealt with nationally as it will not be dealt with at regional level. In the south-west, the Region is accepting that such growth (half a million people into the southwest with a population of five million over the next 20 years) is a given fact of life.

  18.  The first action that should be taken is to take a closer look at regional policy with a national eye and to set in place strong and sophisticated policies to restrict/control/argue against the movement of population from regionally disadvantaged areas to advantaged areas.

  19.  Secondly, In those advantaged areas where there are economic imperatives to growth, attention should be paid to making our main cities and conglomerations (not their greenfield edges or surrounding towns) more attractive to businesses and individuals, denser and more fully integrated into sustainable communities. This is going to need upfront public investment into every conceivable kind of community and physical infrastructure on a massive scale into areas that have in the past been seen to be economically advantaged. And yet without it, the housing market (and all the inter-related markets that follow it) will vote with its bottom line.

  20.  The benefits of planned economic growth within a more sustainable set of advantaged areas should be reaped and invested in other parts of the country to create a virtuous cycle of re-generation and redistribution of wealth with the intention of retaining its currently migrating populations.

  21.  In responding to the demand for housing for sale, it is impossible to separate out that market from the general economic and social systems. Planning policies directed only at responding to the housing market will be like trying to drive a car by only touching the accelerator: there might be a satisfying burst of speed, but without a steering wheel or brakes you will crash eventually.


  23.  In one sense, we have been testing this issue since the mid-1990's when local planning authorities started to insist that a proportion of new housebuilding should be "restricted" in price by various means to make them affordable to those who might not otherwise have been able to compete in the market.

  24.  Before this time, housebuilders would consult their in-house proprietary residual valuation formulae to determine what would offer them the greatest profit margin. In the relatively unrestrained (by Planners at least) times of the 1980's this meant that the market built, when it was profitable, as many small one or two-bedroom units as possible. At other times, this would change to the building of smaller numbers of large executive homes. The "hand" of the market determined what could be built at a profit at any one time.

  25.  More recently, the impact of affordable housing policies has been to change the mix of housing such that for every one or two "market price" house(s) built, one "lower-than market-price" house would be built. This has usually meant that, all other things being equal, a few executive style houses would be "paying" for the smaller, more affordable (usually rented) houses. This cross subsidy is fuelled by the value that market houses have to off-set the cost of the required affordable houses. Once again, the market settled into a pattern that allowed it to provide affordable homes whilst still making a profit.

  26.  If this is a way of equating the "price" of houses that are affordable with the scale of affordable housing build that the market finds it can accept whilst still making a profit, it can roughly predict the scale of affordable housing that the market can provide.

  27.  To take an example, over the last five years in North Wiltshire, housebuilding has occurred at an average rate of about 400 dwellings per year. As is the case across the country, it is generally accepted by the marlkey) current policy that one in every three houses must be affordable. If one relates this to the need, calculated by North Wiltshire District Council, of 780 affordable houses per year for the next five years, housebuilding would have to jump to over 2,300 dwellings per year to provide for this need. Almost a fourfold increase. Put very crudely, if we have experienced an 11% increase in population in a previous 10 year period, it would have to be more like 75% in a future 10 year period.

  28.  This would equate to an increase in population over ten years within North Wiltshire at a level that could not do anything but damage its natural and historic environment and be completely beyond its infrastructure capacity or resources.


  30.  In the same way that modern responses to our defence, to our need to promote democracy, to global trade, accommodation of religions and to cultural expression are considered at a national level, so too must be the response to our physical environment. A national eye needs to be cast over population movement and economic development. The building of housing is not the only tool in the box and to see it thus will cause foreseeable problems. And then we truly can conclude that we get the towns, cities and countryside we deserve.


Mumford, Lewis (1961) The City In History, Secker & Warburg

Hanson and Hillier (1984) The Social Logic of Space, Cambridge University Press

North Wiltshire District Council (1985) Housing Needs Survey, NWDC, Chippenham

Regional Spatial Strategy for the South West 2006-26 (2004-05) (Various Preparatory Documents) see

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