We, as a country, have decided to make tackling climate change much more expensive. This is the logical consequence of today’s news that onshore wind, the cheapest form of low carbon power, is to suffer much heavier restrictions on where it can be built. Given that the need to tackle climate change has not gone away, the options left to us to reduce the impact of our need for electricity are much more expensive.

But there’s a bigger problem than this, and that’s the message it sends about our future as a country. The new restrictions on wind turbines will make it more difficult to build them in areas where wind turbines already exist, on flatter land and near old buildings. But the key change is this statement by Eric Pickles:

“the need for renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities”

While this sounds reasonable, ‘environmental protections’ does not refer to the natural world, but rather to views. How opponents of wind power have got away with conflating the natural world and the views of people who’ve retired to the countryside is baffling, and a failing on the part of its advocates. Previously, while aesthetic impact was taken into account, it only resulted in a refused planning application when there was an impact on genuinely astonishing views, like national parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Now it seems likely that rather than permitting national needs to occasionally override the concerns of people who’ve bought houses in the countryside, much more of our country will be locked in stasis.

People tend not to like change, and people especially don’t like change if they’ve retired to the countryside. The majority of objections to wind farms come from retirees and incomers to communities, rather than lifelong countryside dwellers. Eric Pickles’ statement realigns the UK to serve this interest group. While people of course deserve their retirement, turning the countryside into a care home is not the way to run an economy.

We have a proud heritage, and we could have a proud future. But changes like this, which place more power in the hands of people with little interest in the future, make it more likely that that future will be as a museum for Chinese tourists. This is not the legacy the Coalition should leave.

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I’m in Wales taking the role of an expert on windpower for a consultation by National Grid on grid extensions for new windfarms. You’ll probably be thinking, “Wow, thrilling stuff!”, and you’d be right to think that – especially if you live here.

This development will have a significant impact on the lives of people around it, and no-one is pretending otherwise. The purpose of the consultation is to minimise that impact via the feedback of local people. My role is to put the broader case for the expansion of windpower to give attendees an understanding as to why this work is being carried out.

During the course of this, I’ve noticed something interesting, something I would describe as a potential market failure. The biggest opposition to the proposals comes from a demographic labelled ‘white settlers’ – people who’ve moved out to rural areas, normally from England and normally after retirement.

They’ve bought property out here for various reasons, but the ones I hear cited most often are the quiet and scenery, both of which will be impacted by new pylons and the construction work around them. They say this will affect the price of their property.

The interesting thing – and what I’d describe as a market failure – is that if this does occur it’ll do so without impacting the actual bearer of that value – namely, their house. It will remain the same collection of bricks and mortar as it did when they bought it. The actual property right they bought – the right to their house – has nothing to do with the environment in which it is situated and yet the market behaves as if this is the case.

There are a collection of legal rights associated with living in a particular place, around noise and pollution and so in, but they are attached to persons, not to property, and so have a quite different status. You don’t buy the right to a quiet life by moving out to the country, but the market behaves as if you do.

While some may simply shrug and say ‘Caveat emptor’, that’s not an appropriate response – people feel genuinely betrayed that their purchase hasn’t entitled them to the environment they expected. Is there a possible solution?

I would argue that we need to separate out particular rights relating to amenity explicitly, and confer on them the status of a community right attached to a property. You would not be required to purchase that right if you bought a property, but you would then have no recourse if that right were transgressed by an external party. Developers could then purchase, say, the right to an average level of background noise as a consequence of a particular development, or lease it over a period of construction. This would offset the impact on property values that would otherwise occur, assuming a market rate were paid, and smooth the process of gaining consent for a development.

While it may be objected that such a system would be unbearably complicated, those objecting have clearly never encountered the planning system. We need a mechanism to ensure that the relationship between property rights and nearby development is transparent and equitable, and as a good liberal I’d say expanding the scope of property rights is the way to do it.

This is a follow-up to my recent post on the Coalition’s Grand Strategy of reshaping Britain in such a way as to leave no political space open to their rivals. Here, I’d like to briefly examine one of the ways they plan on doing this – via the planning system.

The Localism Bill does something very interesting to the relationship between the public and private companies when it comes to development. Whereas previously applications for planning permission happened without legal regard to the priorities of people in the extreme locality of a development, now those people will, via Neighbourhood Plans, be able to determine what sort of development is appropriate to that area. Furthermore, neighbourhoods will have the ability to grant planning permission to whatever development they want via Neighbourhood Development Orders. It would therefore seem that, unless one happens to be lucky enough to want to build in an area about which none of its inhabitants care, any developer will be compelled to win the support of local people – a majority of local people, because of the new referendum powers – in order to build.

In the information age, the key to winning public support is openness and honesty – because everything you do is recorded somewhere and is available with a wave of the magic Google. It requires genuinely good works – building community centres, or refurbishing local libraries, and so on – all those projects funded out of Section 106 monies well-known to local campaigners. The scope for this activity will only expand as the requirements vouchsafed by the watching public expand in the wake of the new powers granted in the Localism Bill. Private development companies will be compelled to be good, not through legislation but from compulsion wrought of public opinion.

While they only represent part of the UK’s economy, this forced transparency is mirrored elsewhere – the Fair Trade Movement, Which? and many similar civil society organisations. The increasing glare of public view, abetted by legislation exposing private investment decisions to democratic oversight (which, lefties, is exactly what you’re constantly calling for and is to be found in the Localism Bill), will have a very precise impact. It will be to reduce the ethical premium the public sector has over the private.

It’s fair to say that the public sector is seen as more moral than the private sector – the concept of co-operative work that it’s meant to represent is more ethically appealing than private competition, which historically has been blamed for all manner of ills. What happens to that perception if the private sector begins to hold itself – irrespective of outside intervention – to extremely high ethical standards? There’ll always be exceptions, but the repeated day-to-day exposure of the public to a more ethical private sector will diminish support for a party seen to represent the public sector to the exclusion of private – a fully left-wing Labour party.

With this in mind, I’d like to make a few predictions:

(1) Labour will find it impossible to move further left. Ed Milliband will continue to denounce public sector strike actions, for fear of being out of touch with the popular mood.

(2) The star offenders of the private sector, the banks, will be reined in again – not using taxes, but from some kind of regulatory solution that exposes them to the same force of democratic will as that beginning to come to bear on the development industry. This is the prime policy challenge facing the coalition – if they fail to do this, their overall project of reshaping Britain’s political landscape will also fail, as the private sector will continue to be tarnished by association.

As I said in my previous post, it promises to be an interesting five years.

Go and read the comments appended to this article in the Guardian. Go on, go and read them. Do you get the impression that millions of poor aspiring people are about to be pushed out onto the streets? That’s fascinating. It appears from those comments that Cameron’s plan to require every new tenancy to be review every five years will push people out onto the street, and cause a massive breakdown in social cohesion (whatever that means).

Let’s now have a look at some statistics. This report from the National Centre for Social Research demonstrates that only about 22% of the people who live in social housing and/or rent from the Council are actually working full time – the rest are retired, unemployed (3-4% of the total, for those who think social housing is essential to catch people in economic need), working part-time (13%) or economically inactive in some other way. Only 22% of current social renters are likely – at the outside – to even have the chance of losing a tenancy (Edit: Grant Shapps has confirmed that this would only apply to new tenants – so that’s 22% of new tenants, then). To do that, they’d need to get a better job. This does constitute a deterrent to social mobility, so I can only hope that IDS’s proposals will include some form of housing benefit reform to compensate for this.

Now, this report from the House of Commons Library demonstrates that the percentage of people in social housing & local authority housing has been decreasing since the 1980s. Surely this is a good thing, and evidence of social mobility. However, it also demonstrates that housing stock construction has slowed to around 150,000 per year since the 80s too. During this period, the population has increased by about 5 million. This is relatively high historically speaking, matched only during the 60s – which experienced significantly higher levels of house construction.

If supply and demand were working effectively, house building should be on the increase – rather than the decrease. This would lower house prices, and make it more affordable for people to leave social housing. It’s not. Why not?

There are multiple factors here, but perhaps the most significant is planning legislation. Since 1947, if you owned land you couldn’t simply build on it – you had to seek permission from the local authority. The reforms to this legislation by the Thatcher government in 1990 made building housing significantly more costly, and consequently raised house prices. Demand for higher-priced housing is of course lower, resulting in lower levels of construction.

More than anything else, it’s the housing market that’s causing the pressure on social housing. In order to reduce house prices, you need planning reform. The Tories are proposing planning reform – but reform that may yet make building houses more difficult. Cameron’s attempts to reduce the demand for social housing by shifting out people who can afford it is actually good thing, but it’s not the real story – the Tories need to reconsider their planning policy if we’re going to resolve the housing crisis. I look forward to the Guardian’s campaign against green belts.
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