Well, yes Sir Simon, but how do we calculate this?

Simon Jenkins is reviving the notion that clever people like himself, those Great and the Good, can tell all of the rest of us how to live our lives. His particular example is supermarkets but it could be anything at all really, given the proclivities of some to tell other people what to do.

We went from that High Street thing, to supermarkets, to out of town supermarkets and perhaps now to online sales:

Land is Britain’s most precious resource. The point of planning is to economise its usefulness.

We’d argue a bit there, Britain’s most precious resource is Britons. Their, our, accumulated knowledge, labour and the accumulated labour (also known as capital) handed down from our forefathers. But that aside, yes, of course, we wish to create the maximum economic benefit from whatever resources we have (and that does not mean just money, of course not, we’re talking utility here).

At which point we’ve got to ponder, well, how do we do that maximisation? And the truth is no one knows. That’s why we cannot plan. Should someone, in the 1980s, when considering a planning application for a supermarket have predicted the rise of the internet, Amazon and Ocado? Could they have done so? In the 1990s?

Yes? No?

If not, then it couldn’t have been planned for, could it?

At present, smart planning ought to be thinking ahead of the boom in online shopping. What mistakes might there be in pandering to its gargantuan appetites? What are the implications of every street jammed with home delivery lorries? What of every suburb blighted with distribution centres, supplied by giant hangars littering every motorway?

The correct answer here is “we dunno”. Nor do you and nor does anyone else. We’re all just going to have to suck it and see. Or, as we might put that a little more formally, allow the market to sort it all out. We consumers will work out which of the various options we ourselves prefer, those who cater to our desires will prosper and we’ll end up with a system that might not exult entirely everyone but which does the best to provide aggregate human utility that can be managed at this stage of technological progress.

And yes, that does mean that Sir Simon and his ilk don’t get to plan it all for us. Exactly what annoys them all so much of course.

In praise of Project Gregory

This is a really rather inventive idea that’s just been funded on Kickstarter. We’ve lots of homeless people (perhaps rather fewer in England than many think but still). And we’d all obviously like to find a way to house the homeless. We might say it’s for ethical reasons, civilised ones or just that they clutter up the urban landscape so badly: but housing the homeless is quite obviously a good thing to be doing.

So, why not build little self-contained units, by the roadside, that are then slathered with advertising? The billboard pays for the upkeep (even if not the capital cost) of that housing? On much the same basis that various advertising firms are willing to build bus shelters as long as they get the advertising rights upon them.

An excellent concept except for just one thing:

Cities are engulfed with billboard advertisements which are expensive to construct, maintain and their subsequent renting is a costly venture. The proposal increases the functionality of the structures in a way that the insides could be turned into living spaces. Such an object would produce minimal maintenancecosts, which could be paid through the rental space of its facade. In addition, the architects believe, ‘if we take the electricity cost needed for the billboard to keep it lit during night and we try to optimize it by x%, we find that this saved energy could fully cover all those interior usage needs.”

That might not quite roll off the tongue but that’s pretty good English for some Slovak architectural students.

At which point we come to that just one thing.

Planning permission.

To do this would obviously require the granting of planning permission to build such dwellings. But if we had a planning system that allowed the building of cheap and cheerful urban homes then we wouldn’t (absent addiction and mental health issues) have a problem with homelessness in the first place.

It’s a fascinating solution. But the reason it won’t work as a solution is because it won’t pass through that planning system that causes the problem it’s trying to solve.

Ain’t bureaucracy wondrous?

On the merits of competition in government services

Perhaps we should be having more competition with government services?

A businessman who built his own £325,000 toll road to bypass roadworks is to close the shortcut after the local council invested £660,000 to finish repairs five weeks early.

Mike Watts, 63, claims he will now not make a penny and will lose out on a profit of several thousand pounds after Bath and North East Somerset completed the work ahead of schedule.

He became the first private individual to build a British toll road in more than a century when a crucial road in Kelston, Somerset, was closed by a landslip, leaving locals with a 14-mile diversion.

The roadworks were scheduled to last until Christmas, which would have given Mr Watts and his wife Wendy, 52, a healthy profit on their £325,000 investment.

But instead the A431 Kelston Road between Bristol and Bath will re-open tomorrow, meaning he couple will just break even after spending £150,000 to build the road and £150,000 on upkeep.

That he won’t make a profit is no doubt distressing to him but it’s of no importance at all over public policy. And there’s more than a suspicion (look, your humble writer is a Bathonian and he’s absolutely convinced that there’s no suspicion at all, this is simple fact) that the speed up was done out of spite. Can’t have the council being made to look bad or incompetent, can we, people will wonder what they’re paying their taxes for! But again that’s of no real import here.

What is important is that the landslip has been corrected, the public road opened 5 weeks earlier than it would have been without the competition. And yes, even if is simply spite that drove that decision the consumers are all better off as a result. So, more competition in public services please: for we are supposed to be running this whole economy and government thing in order to benefit the consumers.

Tired of London?

Samuel Johnson famously pronounced: “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. This isn’t the end of his statement though, he added: “for there is in London all that life can afford.” But what if you can’t afford life in London? Surely then it is time to up sticks and move to a cheaper city.

According to a poll from the Supper Club, the network for entrepreneurs turning over £1m or more, 40pc of London-based business owners have considered moving their operations.

More than a third claimed that the cost and inefficiency of London’s public transport system is holding back businesses, while 40pc said that the cost of housing is driving away the best talent. With house prices in London reaching an all-time peak, business owners have warned of a “brain drain”.

The Supper Club, which represents 330 entrepreneurs from a range of sectors, found that 79pc of respondents fear a skills crisis within five years.

Of course, for as long as London remains a leading world city – at the cutting edge of finance, business and culture – it will remain a pricey place to live. After all, there is a flipside of the economies of amalgamation – some stuff, like housing becomes more expensive. And yet, there can be no doubting that house prices are hitting crisis point. For Generation Y, many can’t foresee how they will ever be able to own property in the capital. London’s big divide is between the owners and the renters and successive governments’ failure in allowing more houses to be built is squarely to blame.

To give you a sense of the crisis, Shelter’s model predicts that fewer than 1 in 5 of London families will be able to become owners by the age of 65 if prices inflate as they have done in the past.

As the LSE’s Paul Cheshire points out, politicians haven’t stepped up to the plate. The coalitions’ Help to Buy policies are doing little (except pushing up prices), while Labour’s suggestion for partial controls on rents, increased security of tenure, and elimination of agent’s fees for finding housing for renters, will probably just decrease rental supply as fewer people want to become landlords.

Cheshire believes “nothing short of radical reform will improve housing affordability. But radical reform, like intelligently loosening restrictions on Greenbelt building, is frightening.” Affordable, more stable house prices should be the policy goals of all political parties. This requires a more liberalised system, whereby the demand for housing would impact its supply.

This generation of successful entrepreneurs may be able to live in London but their employees increasingly can’t. And crucially, for the wealth of this nation, the next generation of entrepreneurs may have already moved to a city where the cost of living isn’t prohibitively expensive – and my first pick wouldn’t be the UK.

It really is the planning system that’s harming us

It really is the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act that is causing our housing problems:

Britons live in the smallest homes in Western Europe because of draconian planning laws restricting house building, a report found yesterday.

Residential floor space in Britain is on average just 66 square metres (710 square feet) per household, compared to a spacious 118 square metres (1,270 sq ft) in Ireland, 115 square metres (1,238 sq ft) in Denmark or 110 square metres (1,184 sq ft) in Italy, according to data compiled by the Institute of Economic Affairs.

‘All the evidence suggests that years of tight planning controls restricting house building has led to us having the smallest space per household in Western Europe.’ The figures were compiled as part of a report which confronted some of the most widely-held views about the cost of living crisis.

We have some of the most expensive housing in Europe and some of the smallest. Those two logically go together of course: people tend to consume less of something the more expensive it becomes. But is it actually desirable?

If we were facing a shortage of land upon which to build then perhaps so. If something does have to be rationed then rationing by price is the way to do it. But there isn’t any shortage of land. Housing takes up some 3% of England all urban areas no more than 10%. Famously, more of Surrey has golf courses than housing on it. What we do have though is a shortage of the pieces of paper that allow building a house on a piece of land.

Many say that this is a problem that government should solve. Build more council houses for example, force the private sector to do so. And the aim is correct, the government should solve this problem. But not by actually doing anything of course. That shortage of planning permissions is an active action by government: and the solution is therefore for them not to try to do something but to stop doing something.

Simply liberalise that planning system. After all, the last time the private sector built houses in the sort of volumes we need today was the 1930s. And it built all those houses where people wanted to live, in sizes they desired: those semi-urban semis are exactly what people find desirable today as well, judging by their prices. And all of this was done without much restriction on what could be built where.

We know this solution works because the last time we had a reasonably functional housing market was when we had an absence of that planning.