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

10 January 2013

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…



More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us now.

  • kwestion.all

    “Horse before Cart” – ie first you provide the jobs, then people who have the jobs can buy houses. Part of the problem is the lack of firms locating in the north or any other part of the former industrial heartland of the UK. Resolve this and the housing problem may resolve itself.

  • vvputout

    Preston can be the centre of shale gas exploitation.

  • Eddie

    Yes yes yes – but this (and most comment in this issue) is asking the wrong question: ie ‘why don’t we build more houses?’ (in what is already the most densely populated country in Europe).
    The question repeated should be:
    ‘why can’t we have fewer people?’
    The housing crisis is a direct result of irresponsible immigration policies.
    This is the point that every politician who wants mass immigration and then wrings their hands about how we need more housing should be slapped with again and again until their hypocrisy bleeds from their eyes.
    If we had 56 million people as we did 30 years ago then we’d all be far better off. And ordinary working people would be able to afford modest homes in their home cities and towns too.
    Is it in any way good that houses are now 3 times more expensive than in 1997? Errr…why?

  • A J Brenchley

    Big difference between Texas (I lived there as a homeowner for five years) and northern England, Alex. Texas believes in freedom.

    • Trofim

      Area of Texas 268,820 square miles
      Area of England 50,356 square miles
      Population of Texas 26 million
      Population of England 56 million.

      So, although Texas has the second highest population by state in the US, it has a population density 11-12 times less than England.

      The Scottish borders are an ideal place for building a few new Birminghams. But, of course, with an ever-increasing population in this country, the concept of “sufficient” houses is meaningless. You can never build enough.

  • Noa

    You fail to mention the 5,000 redundancies in the local aerospace industry as the Nimrod and Harrier contracts were canceled in 2010 or that Preston is among the worst hit high streets in Britain for shop closures, according to a study showing 31 shops closed in the city during 2011 alone, making it among the worst-hit in the country.

    With a 15+% ethnic immigrant, mostly Indian muslim population, high cancer, age and mortality rates, you will forgive me if I don’t share that southern nimbyism and don’t feel like welcoming Labour’s immigrant millions to my home town.

    The West Lancashire NHS report below will provide you with much more depressing data.

    However, in the spirit of reciprocity I am entirely happy to propose the quiet, genteel border regions as very suitable places indeed to receive the twin benefits of the Boles building boom and its accompanying diverse ethnic enrichment.

  • andagain

    Once upon a time, people in this country were able to move to where the jobs were. Not any more. Now they make it impossible to move to the areas where there is work, and condemn you as a scrounger for not doing so.

    • cornelius

      People can move easily, as long as they are not on benefits in the first place.

      • andagain

        House prices are high and rising in the South, and lower and falling in the North. So if you own a house in the North, you still cannot afford to buy one in the South.

        To put it at its simplest: if you stop people from building new houses in the South, don’t complain when no one from the North moves south into these non-existent houses to find work.

        • Eddie

          We don’t need more houses in the south at all; we need fewer people.
          So why is this government and every one before it so in favour of mass immigration as a short-term fix? Why no controls on foreign buyers? Why none of buy to let investors?
          Prices must fall – as must our immigration rate. Our population should not get bigger.
          All new housing can be in wasteland in cities and towns. But probably, due to our overcrowding, these ‘affordable homes’ (in which no prevaricating politician lives of course) will be about the size of an average bathroom in the US.
          If it were 56 miliion and not 62 million then there wouldn’t even be a silly housing problem – which is entirely self-inflicted.

  • Daniel Maris

    That you smile on the Nelly O’Brien and Little Nicky Boles says it all.

    They really know their stuff don’t they. Why not refer Nelly to the following (it’s Googlable via Wikipedia so it shouldn’t overtax his powers of research0:

    “In 2008 a survey revealed that 50% of all children living in [Preston] were
    living in families suffering from financial depression. An estimated 15,380
    youngsters were part of the families on the breadline. The Campaign to End Child
    Poverty report defined children in poverty as children living in homes where
    occupants work less than 16 hours a week, or not at all, or where the full
    amount of tax credit is being claimed. The city was one of the most severely
    affected areas of the North West outside Liverpool and Manchester, with 21% of children in the city living
    in households which were completely workless and a further 29% in families
    struggling to get by with working tax credits. The two worst affected
    areas of the city were the Deepdale and St George’s wards, where 75% and 77% of
    children respectively were said to be living in poverty.”

Can't find your Web ID? Click here