It’s Sprawl Over Now
Since the middle of the 20th century restrictive planning laws have helped preserve the charm of English villages. New government guidelines could put paid to that at a stroke, says Ross Clark
ABOUT 40 YEARS ago the cottage opposite my house was bulldozed. Nobody had lived there for years and it was becoming a bit of an eyesore, which wasn’t untypical for an East Anglian village at the time. Down the road a pair of cottages was allowed to fall down and never replaced. Elsewhere, there were cases of landowners setting light to unwanted cottages rather than paying the rates.
It’s a different story now. A few years ago — admittedly when the market was still booming — I had an eye on one of the last remaining tumbledown cottages in a nearby village. The old lady who lived there died and the house fell vacant. Out of respect to her I left it until the day after the funeral to make a gentle enquiry to the family as to whether the house might be for sale — and was told that they were getting a bit fed up because they had already had calls from six property developers putting in offers. The cottage was promptly reborn as a five-bedroom family house.
In less than half a century the best English villages have gone from being backwaters to being among the most desirable neighbourhoods in Britain and the world. A recent survey by Savills found that house prices in English villages are 34 per cent higher than the average for the counties in which they stand. Compared with urban areas they’re 45 per cent higher.
The popularity of village life would not have happened without reliable cars, plumbing and electricity — the last of these only arrived in my village in 1953. But there is a further factor: the planning system. It’s only thanks to restrictive planning that villages have remained villages rather than becoming elongated suburbs joined to nearby towns along the main roads. That is exactly what was happening in the Thirties before the planning system was instigated, when landowners could put up whatever buildings they liked, wherever they liked.
The irony of the planning system is that while it was part of the apparatus of the postwar command economy introduced by Clement Attlee’s government in 1947, its strongest advocates now are wealthy homeowners. The planning system is a severe and straightforward anti-free-market device, and yet people who in every other respect are in favour of a liberal economy will fight to the death to defend it. They do so because — in an unintended consequence not foreseen by its creators — it boosts the value of their homes.
Restrictive planning preserves their aesthetic surroundings and helps to create scarcity. While some villages are selected by planners for growth, most are contained within what planners call a ‘developmental envelope’ which in many cases keeps them much the same size as they were in the 18th century.
THE COALITION HAS proposed to replace more than 1,000 pages of planning law with 52 pages of shamelessly pro-development guidance. The proposals impose a ‘presumption in favour of development’ which turns the planning system on its head: rather than developers having to make a case why developments should go ahead, the proposals shift the emphasis so that the onus will be on residents to say why plans should not be allowed.
The classic English village is potentially the biggest loser. Thanks to their desirability, high prices and the availability of land around them, Home Counties villages will naturally be targeted by developers. Although the guidance is still in the consultation stage, it has already been cited by planning officials in some cases.
It is hard to predict what the planning reforms will mean in practice —we won’t know that until a few developers have tested in court exactly what a ‘presumption in favour of development’ means. There is one way, though, for wealthy residents to ensure that their villages remain villages: buy up all the land around them. There has certainly been strong demand for farmland over the past few months —its value has doubled over the past five years and increased by 7.4 per cent in the first three quarters of 2011 — remarkably at a time when wheat prices have been falling. Knight Frank recently sold some farmland in the Cotswolds for £11,000 per acre.
These are high prices for farmland, though of course they do not compare in any way with the price of development land, which can easily sell for £1 million or more per acre. With such a discrepancy in value, the faintest hope of future development is sufficient to boost the value of land — either because someone spies opportunity or they fear development and want to protect the amenity of their existing property.
The English village has seen many transformations, from feudal to estate to semi-abandoned to commuter village. As pressure for development grows, there’s another transformation to come. It may be that villages which want to remain villages will in future become communities of resident landowners.
Ross Clark is a property expert who writes for The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator