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Magic Bullets? Why Value Capture Should Be Kept Simple

The House of Commons Housing Communities & Local Government Select Committee Land Value Capture Inquiry report is great, but dangerous. It is a welcome reminder that the planning system can, and should, do more to capture the cost of the infrastructure required to support development. It is also problematic because it suggests a range of new “toys”, including a review of CPO compensation provisions, that is politically unworkable, a distraction and unnecessary.

Right Price

The report is clear that landowners, and developers on their behalf, already make significant contributions towards infrastructure and affordable housing. The combination of planning obligations and CIL can work effectively. With more local authority resource, greater transparency and a stronger emphasis on the local plan, even more can be achieved. As the report indicates, proper planning requirements should be viability tested and reflected in planning policy and a reformed and simplified CIL. Those needs will then, perhaps slowly, be “hardwired” into land prices. Land will be “right priced”.

No end to hope

A number of witnesses, and the evidence, emphasise that using planning policy is not a panacea. It will not fund all infrastructure requirements.  It will not solve the housing market problem.  Markets in different parts of the country are very different. The planning system can be used to secure a full contribution to infrastructure in parts of the South East, in a way that is simply impossible in parts of the North West.  Local planning processes can reflect those differences better than any sweeping national change.  Similarly, right pricing also requires some market sensitivity and testing. The aim should be to maximise the contribution that landowners make to infrastructure, whilst still allowing the land market to function. That means developing policies in a way that still leaves a sensible market value.

In urban areas that market value will, often, reflect the existing use value plus a sensible margin and an incentive to bring land to the market. For greenfield sites, the market value will need to reflect an amount needed for landowners, or promoters, to bring forward development and recycle value themselves into infrastructure delivery and place-making. However, landowners need to recognise that any existing “hope value” is not a permanent or fixed part of market value. As the market, planning policy and CIL levels change hope value necessarily also has to adjust. Any balancing exercise should diminish, but not dash, hope.

Thin Ice

Perhaps the more important Select Committee issue is the suggestion that the 1961 Land Compensation Act should be changed. In broad terms, the Committee recommend that land being compulsorily acquired should be acquired at existing use value instead of market value. That would be resisted. It would create a two-tier land market – with different values applying to adjacent plots depending on whether it is being sold on the open market or being publicly acquired. How would that work? Would that meet one of the tests that the Committee set for itself – fairness?

It is also unnecessary. The Committee attributes the success of the first generation of new towns to there being a different CPO compensation code, and suggests that the same result would not be achieved today. That is just wrong.  If a site for a new town is compulsorily acquired, the valuation will disregard the “scheme”.  In most cases, that will mean the land is acquired at something close to the existing use value – most sites would not be developed in the absence of the new town proposal. Even if, in the absence of the new town proposal, there would a development value to the site then a properly constructed planning policy framework will require any new development to fund the necessary infrastructure and the cost of doing so will be reflected in the land value.

Keep it simple

Why is there a need to change legislation to do something that can, largely, already be achieved without burdening the system with more complexity and change? It should be a fundamental principle of CPO compensation that landowners receive a proper market value for their land. The Parkhurst Road case has made it clear, quite rightly, that market values should reflect planning policy. If that happens, then the hope value component of market value will, properly, be adjusted by the proper attribution of infrastructure costs.   If, after the proper deduction of those costs there is still a margin and a residual hope value, what is the justification really, for amending the compensation code to take that?  If there is a justification for taking that capital gain then the tax system should be used to do so rather than playing games with compulsory purchase compensation which are ultimately likely to slow down development and unhinge investment.