Why it’s harder to build new houses in the UK than France

This is a brief response to Allister Heath, of CityAM, who has been writing and tweeting about how desirable it would be to build more new houses in the UK, and how meagre new building is in the UK compared to new building in France.

My response (tweeted here) was to note that population density is much higher in the UK than France.  We have roughly the same population as France, but 1/5 of the land mass.  Allister’s reply was to note (amongst other points) that actually an incredibly small amount of land is ‘concreted over’ (around 2 per cent) and that on the face of it a great deal more could be built on.  On this view, population density should not be a barrier to more new building.

I think the two of us are talking at cross purposes.  Allister makes a normative point, that more houses would be desirable, despite the larger population density.  He sees the planning restrictions as welfare-reducing.   My reply is a positive one;  I speculate that the tighter planning restrictions have at their root the higher population density, whether they are or are not socially desirable.

If Allister is right, that more building would make us all better off, then there are two positive explanations for the status quo.  One is that people simply don’t know what’s good for them.  For these people, it’s almost tautological to observe that density is the route of their objections to new building.   They don’t want new building because it increases the number of buildings near them!  Density comes into it in other ways too.  The planning restrictions that society (on this view, irrationally) dislikes need enforcing.  And enforcement is easier when density is higher:  ultimately it boils down to the number of cops you have per field!

A second explanation for the status quo in planning is that there is a small, influential group of people powerful enough to enforce it, even though on balance most people would prefer new building.  Enforcing ones will over the majority would also seem to me to be harder in less densely populated areas.  If the majority are spread out over a large territory, it will be more expensive for the minority to try to thwart their desire to build and enforce planning regulations they don’t like.

Although I think we were talking at cross purposes, I could take Allister on and question whether more building would be socially desirable.  How would we figure this out anyway?  New building is surely not going to make everyone happier (see above).  At least not the people living next door.  And those who have their own house [either by owning one, or having enough income to guarantee to be able to rent one] are probably in the majority.  So to conclude that more building is socially beneficial means we depart from majoritarian schemes for deciding and to something like a utilitarian one.  Perhaps the unhappiness of the few without a house more than outweighs the mild displeasure those with one would experience if another house was built in front of their thus far unrestricted view of arable farmland.  Perhaps.

There must also be some socially optimal level of population density.  (Allister concedes this, he just thinks we have not yet reached it).  Noting, as Allister does, that only a small percentage of land is ‘concreted over’ is, however, not necessarily conclusive proof that we have not yet got to that optimal level of density.  For example, it would be easy to destroy all the remaining open wilderness in the world by adding only fractionally to that ‘concreted over’ percentage, ensuring that wherever you looked there was at least some man-made structure.  The proportion of land that is concreted over is not that informative about where we are relative to the optimum.

Moreover, there is some good in having a system that makes it hard to take steps to increase the density of buildings.  The optimal density of buildings is probably slowly time-varying, as demographics, and the economics of production and social interaction evolve over time.  [It’s entirely conceivable that the population will fall at some point.  Or the desire to get away from it all will rise.]  Since land once built on is harder to restore to its ‘original’ state, being cautious about new building is a crude way of protecting the interests of those that will follow us and want to make their own choices about the same question.

[PS a quick glance at Wikipedia showed me that I was way off with my guess at relative densities in the UK and France.  Population density seems to be about 2.5 times greater in the UK than France, not 5 times greater, as I asserted in my tweet.]

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