Goodbye, Green Belt!

Last night BBC London News aired a short film I took part in about the Green Belt. As part of a series of ‘authored’ pieces about various solutions to London’s housing crisis, I suggested that we should allow construction on the Green Belt around London to increase the supply of developable land.

Cheshire-htg-fig-1Land, as Paul Cheshire likes to point out, is the key. The graph above shows how closely house price rises have tracked land price rises. Land-use restrictions on the Green Belt are quite strict: under the National Planning Policy Framework, local councils face a very high burden of proof to approve new developments on Green Belt land. If they were made less strict, then the supply of land and housing would increase and the price of both would fall.

I usually think of people who want to preserve the Green Belt as being motivated by financial considerations. If you own your house, you don’t want its value to fall, so you have a strong incentive to oppose any measure that will increase supply. Perhaps a large proportion of people involved in campaigns to ‘protect the Green Belt’ own their own homes. (And if not, that would certainly falsify this view.)

But filming with the BBC made me realize that this explanation is too neat and too unfair. The preservationist I interviewed, Dr Ann Goddard, was not preoccupied with preserving the value of her home – she believed, as many do, that relatively unspoiled natural areas are valuable and important to protect from development. The meadow she took us to was very pretty and I would regret losing places like it as well. Throughout our conversation Ann made it clear that her idea of England was entwined with its image as a ‘green and pleasant land’, not just somewhere for endless suburban sprawl.

Much of that greenery is worth keeping, but I suggest that the question is not ‘what’ but ‘where’. Since Green Belt land rings cities, it is much more difficult for city slickers to access than, say, gardens or parks. And lots of London already is covered in gardens or parks – more than half, according to one estimate. Allowing London to expand outwards would eat away at the Green Belt, but also allow more people to have gardens and for more (and bigger) parks to be built.

I also realized how important symbols can be: to Ann the meadow we went to WAS the Green Belt. If we’d taken her to a piece of intensive farmland (34% of the Green Belt around London) maybe she would have cared less about the prospect of that being turned into a village. And I wonder if focusing on intensive farmland is the key to changing people’s minds. In the end, if the battle over the Green Belt is about ideas and symbols rather than pocketbooks, a change of language might help us.

Why golf is a rubbish sport

The LSE’s Paul Cheshire has a good post up on the Spatial Economics Research Centre blog today on green- and brown-field development. Among other things, he explains why there are so many golf courses on the green belt:

Nothing wrong with golf or horsey culture but what we have to understand is that Greenbelt designation gives those land uses a massive subsidy. House building cannot compete for agricultural land but golf and horses can. I recently discovered another reason why we have so many golf courses around our cities: they are substitutes for landfill sites. It costs £80 a ton to dispose of ‘inert material’ in registered landfill sites but nothing if it goes into building bunkers! To quote Paul Robinson, Derby Council’s Strategic Director for Neighbourhoods, in defending the potential to capitalise on the value of the sites of the Councils two golf courses: “Effectively you go out to the waste industry and you say we will allow you to put your inert waste in our golf course…So you create mounds and bunker areas using the waste and at the core of those is inert waste.” .

This is one factor which underlies the proliferation of golf courses close to sources of builders’ waste and on land where there is no competition from houses. As noted in The Economist there is a serious oversupply of them. So the combination of Greenbelt designation and landfill costs means we can build as many golf courses as the market demands at their subsidised price but we cannot build houses. It is time to start turning some of our excess supply of golf courses into gardens; with houses on them!

The whole thing is a good read, particular the estimate of how much greenfield land is currently available to build on within a ten minute walk of a train station. (Quite a lot.)

George Monbiot really is a national treasure, isn’t he?

If it weren’t for the fact that The Guardian is where we send our national treasures to fossilise already we’d have to send George Monbiot there tout sweet. For he’s now come up with an argument so absurd that nothing other than the journalistic equivalent of a peerage, that home at Comment is Free, could possibly be appropriate:

Planning laws inhibit prosperity. That’s what we’re told by almost everyone. Those long and tortuous negotiations over what should be built where are a brake on progress. All the major parties and most of the media believe that we would be better off with less regulation, less discussion and more speed. Try telling that to the people of Spain and Ireland. Town planning in those countries amounts to shaking a giant dustbin over the land. Houses are littered randomly across landscapes of tremendous beauty, and are so disaggregated that they’re almost impossible to provide with public services. The result, of course, is a great advance in human welfare. Oh, wait a moment. No, it’s economic collapse followed by mass unemployment. Spain and Ireland removed the brakes on progress and the car rolled over a precipice. Their barely regulated planning systems permitted the creation of property bubbles that trashed the economy along with the land.

No, really, we’ve not made this up. That really is what he said. That the absence of strict planning regimes creates housing bubbles. That free supply of land to build upon increases the price of housing.

This is, of course, a confusion of the difference between correlation and causation. It’s true that the two countries had liberal planning systems (the Spanish one driven more by bribery than the law but still) and it’s also true that the two had housing booms and subsequent busts. But the causation is not between those two things: rather, it’s to their joint membership of the euro. Both economies were doing well while that of Germany was not. And within the eurozone interest rates were set to benefit the German economy, not the booming periphery. Thus rates were far too low for the broader economic conditions in Ireland and Spain: thus an asset bubble.

It was free money that drive those booms, not free planning permissions.

Is Uber worth $18bn?

James Ball, at The Guardian, thinks that Uber’s implicit $18bn valuation is “a nadir in tech insanity”. His case is that tech firms are overvalued because although investors know this, they always assume there are other “suckers” they can palm their securities off on. That is, they think the other guys are “behavioural” (falling prey to the sorts of biases detailed in behavioural economics and behavioural finance) but they themselves are rational. Ball is responsible for some very good and important work, but I think this particular piece would benefit from the application of some financial economics.

It’s always possible that prices are irrational. And because we can never test investors risk preference separately from the efficient markets hypothesis (the idea that markets accurately reflect preferences and expected outcomes) it’s very hard to work out if prices are off, or just incorporating some other factor (usually risk). This is called the joint hypothesis problem. But when there are two alternatives, there is a reason economists put rational expectations in their models—it’s a simpler, better explanation. Finding truly suggestive evidence of irrational price bubbles is the sort of thing that wins you a Nobel Prize not something that a casual onlooker could easily and confidently observe.

Ball might say that even if irrational pricing is rare because of the strong incentives against it in a normal market, there have certainly been episodes of it in the past. Quoting J.M. Keynes, he might say “markets can remain irrational much longer than you or I can remain liquid”. He might point to the 1999-2000 peak of what’s commonly described as the “dot com bubble”. But I urge Ball to consider a point raised in this email exchange between Ivo Welch and Eugene Fama:

How many Microsofts among Internet firms would it have taken to justify the high prices of 1999-2000?  I think there were reasonable beliefs at the time that the internet would revolutionize business and there would be many Microsoft-like success stories based on first-mover advantages in different industries.

Loughran and Ritter (2002, Why has IPO pricing changed over time) report that during 1999-2000 there are 803 IPOs with an average market cap of $1.46bn (Table 1).  576 of the IPOs are tech and internet-related (Table 2). I infer that their total market cap is about $840 billion, or about twice Microsoft’s valuation at that time.  Given expectations at that time about high tech and the business revolution to be generated by the internet, is it unreasonable that the equivalent of two Microsofts would eventually emerge from the tech and internet-related IPOs?

Has not the second wave of cyber firm success (FacebookGoogle, arguably Apple) been even more impressive than the first wave? It may well be only 25% or 10% likely that Uber turns out to be one of these behemoth firms, through network effects, first mover advantages, name-recognition or whatever—but even if the chance is small the potential rewards are huge.

But Ball may point out that even if this is true, in the (putatively) 90% likely scenario, of Uber being a failure, then all this capital is being wasted. It could be put in the projects he prefers: “green energy, modern manufacturing, or even staid-but-solid sectors like retail”. Even if rational expectations—the idea outcomes do not differ systematically (i.e. predictably) from predictions—and the efficient markets hypothesis are not violated, and risk-adjusted expected (private) returns are equal across industries, it might be that social returns from these staid-but-solid sectors are higher—after all, lots of capital is being apparently wasted when so much goes to Uber.

This does not obtain—from the prospects of society, Uber could deliver huge welfare gains. If it does turn out that Uber has enough in the way of network effects to generate returns justifying its price tag (or more) then it would have to create lots of value, by saving taxi-consumers serious money. If they are using less resources to create the same amount of goods, then they are making society better off. Since society is big and diversified, it can afford to be relatively risk neutral (at least compared to an individual), and take even 9-1 punts on the chance that one memorable, semi-established network might be a particularly good way of running a taxi market.

Why Labour’s rent controls will do more harm than good

Now that we have more detail, Labour’s new ‘rent control’ policy is not quite as bad as I’d initially feared. Instead of the old school price ceilings that destroyed parts of New York City, Labour are proposing ‘second-generation rent controls’, which limit the ability of landlords to renegotiate rents during tenancies, and ‘make three-year tenancies the norm’.

The real-world effects of this are likely to be that expected rent increases over the three-year lease will be priced in to the starting rent, so it’s unlikely to actually make anyone better off unless there’s an unexpected increase in rents. If rents fall below expectations, this would hurt tenants.

Since landlords are bound within tenancy agreements, rises in rents are likely to be sharper than they currently are for new tenants. This means that housing mobility is likely to be reduced – tenants locked in to a relatively low rent will find it more costly than they otherwise would to move. This is very important: it looks as if lowered housing mobility causes higher unemployment, because people are less able to move to find new jobs.

Rent controls of any kind are likely to decrease the supply and quality of available housing. ‘Second-generation’ controls are less tight and so less harmful than classical rent controls, but as Hopi Sen has pointed out, the German experience does not seem encouraging. There, rents have risen far more quickly over the past decade than they have in Britain, as new construction has slowed.

There is also evidence to suggest that second-generation rent controls have a similarly negative impact on housing quality as classical rent controls. A 1985 study by the Richmond Fed found that controlled housing units were 7.1% lower in quality in 1974, and 13.5% lower in 1977, pointing to a cumulative negative effect. If classical rent controls are only worse than bombing, second-generation controls may be close to petty vandalism.

One interesting aspect of this announcement is that it may affect supply now, as would-be investors in new housing are discouraged by the prospect of stricter controls on their investment. If the measures are actually brought in – crossing the rent control Rubicon – an expectation of tighter controls may reduce supply even more.

It’s not clear what mechanism Labour is proposing to make three-year tenancies ‘the norm’, but it’s hard to imagine any effective measure that would not end up hurting tenants who want shorter leases. This probably means young people.

As we say virtually every day, the best way to reduce the cost of housing is to build more. Labour’s proposals seem counter-productive, but they’re nothing compared to the harm caused by the planning system.

We recently learned that more of Surrey is covered by golf courses than by houses. Rolling the green belt out even a bit – by, say, a mile outside London – would create space for hundreds of thousands of new homes, relieving pressure on existing housing stock, reducing rents and – a nice bonus – creating lots of jobs and adding a few percentage points on to GDP growth. We can dream.