An unhelpful system


Earlier this week I caught the end of a BBC programme about the planning system. Admittedly, they do seem to be scraping the barrel a bit when it comes to reality TV. But while it wasn't exactly scintillating viewing, it was interesting to see just how it all works in practice.

In my view, the planning system is deeply illiberal and economically damaging. It contributes to the unaffordability of British housing, by making supply unable to react effectively to demand. It prevents people from living in the sort of houses they want. It drives up retail prices, and it has even been shown to increase the volatility of housing booms and busts. And that's just for starters...

I found that the BBC's programme confirmed my prejudices. Three different cases were being followed. One – a disruptive developer in North London – struck me as a clear case of private nuisance. Rather than employing an army of bureaucrats to deal with the problem, it could have been handled privately though the courts. The second – where one family wanted to build an extension that would have blocked their neighbour's light – also struck me as more properly handled without government interference. Some sort of privately negotiated compensation arrangement would certainly have been preferable to the winner-takes-all saga of public inquiries, appeals and counter-appeals.

But it was the third case that really annoyed me. Some inspector was driving around farms in Essex to make sure that they weren't acting as car parks for Stansted airport. But if people need to park their cars, and other people have space for them to do it, why should the government be involved? The farmers concerned were clearly causing no harm to anyone else – on the contrary, they were providing a useful service at a good price. And isn't that much better than subsidizing them with taxpayers' money, at the expense of poor farmers in the developing world?