Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Real Estate in Vancouver: A Local Obsession

Two months have now passed since I landed in Vancouver and what has struck me most is the local obsession with house prices.  And this is not just because I have been hanging around with real estate agents and urban planners!  One only needs to pick up a local newspaper or turn on the television news to witness the continuous stream of stories on house prices.  Yesterday's Vancouver Sun was typical in that it led with a new survey reporting how the city's housing market is in 'dangerous territory' (see here).  In many other cities this story could act as a major warning, but in Vancouver this type of story appears as often in the newspaper as the weather forecast.  In the short time I have been in Vancouver, I have been amazed at how locals have fetishized real estate.

First, the obvious.  House prices are incredibly high in Vancouver and show no sign of changing.  This article reports on how the average house in Vancouver is priced at 11.2 times the median family income, a ratio far in excess of other Canadian cities.   


The high cost of housing in Vancouver stems from a number of factors, including: land supply; influx of overseas capital; the creation of a resort-style city; the type of development product being promoted; and planning regulations.  But I don't want to focus on the reasons for the high prices, and instead focus on why Vancouverites cannot stop talking about it.  London has similarly high house prices compared to average incomes, but from my experience it figures less in the everyday conversation.  Do people in London just accept the situation and move on?  Do Londoners have better things to talk about, like the weather?  Soccer?  Riots?  (ok, they also apply to Vancouver).

I can identify two reasons why the topic of house prices is so much to the fore in Vancouver.  Firstly, house prices are unreasonably high and it is a legitimate concern for youngsters and families looking to get onto the housing ladder.  Many people believe that the only way to afford property is to move further out the city.  Yet, this brings anxieties related to increased commuting and a disconnection from the urban amenities that many young people have grown used to.  This then shapes the local conversation and media discourse.  However, this is no different to many other cities and is not exclusive to Vancouver.

It is therefore more important to look at the characteristics of the local and provincial economy.  While Vancouver has historically been dominated by logging and other exports moving through the seaport, it is now real estate that largely shapes the economy.  As Vancouverism has developed into a brand of urbanism, the real estate sector has capitalised on this to place a premium on living in the 'Liveable City'.  This is not to deny other economic sectors operating in the city (e.g. tourism, film, minerals etc), but the city is noticeable for a lack of HQs or a sizeable financial sector.  Into this void has stepped real estate, whereby local people are more informed from either working in the sector or having greater exposure to it. 

Finding a solution to this obsession is no easy task.  The reasons for the high prices need tackling, and that is wide-ranging strategy which requires coordination from numerous city departments as well as a recognition of wider (and more macro) economic issues which cannot be directly shaped by city policy.  But a greater diversification of the local and regional economy would dilute the dominance of real estate and prove that real estate speculation is not the only industry that a city exists for.  And if all that fails?  Perhaps go back to talking about the weather.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Planning for the Nation - England's attempt at a National Planning Policy Framework

The saying goes that if you are receiving criticism from all sides, then you must be doing at least something right.  This phrase came to mind when I was reviewing the initial reactions to the publication of the draft National Planning Policy Framework (found here).  To summarise, some commentators believe the draft NPPF is a pro-development charter that will permit unfettered development across the countryside.  Yet others continue to complain that planning will remain a drag on development and the NPPF does little to overcome the cumbersome and restrictive nature of English planning policy.  The truth, unsurprisingly, lies somewhere in the middle.

I have long been a supporter of a national planning strategy for England (and the wider UK).  At university I studied the experience of a national spatial strategy in the Netherlands and found the approach to be a positive one (see here).  England is geographically small enough to warrant a national strategy that can articulate the key infrastructure requirements and distill the key guiding principles for new development.  From experience, the existing Planning Policy Statements have ballooned in number and breadth, resulting in guidance that is so generic it becomes obsolete. 

Some of the key reactions to the recent draft include:
  • Royal Town Planning Institute - concern that economic interests could override other (environmental, social etc) interests and unclear about the relationship between national policy and local policy.
  • National Trust - warns that the deletion of the 'brownfield target' will result in urban sprawl similar to Los Angeles!
  • British Chamber of Commerce - supportive of the approach as planning policy has historically been an obstacle to growth.
  • Home Builders Federation - strongly welcomes the pro-growth emphasis towards house building but still wary that Local Authorities could use the ambiguity to delay development.
  • Centre for Cities - dismayed at the lack of reference to cities and believes the NPPF lacks a 'big picture' approach to the economic role of cities.
The future of England if the National Trust are to be believed!
In my view, alot of the reaction to the draft NPPF has been alarmist (though this should not come as a surprise).  The framework is NOT a charter to concrete over the countryside as a number of safeguards are still in place to protect important habitats and avoid inappropriate development.  Groups such as the National Trust and CPRE state that previous planning policy has encouraged growth so why does it need to be drastically altered.  I would argue that previous planning policy may have encouraged economic growth but has not sufficiently supported housing growth. England still has an under-supply of housing stock which is not being sufficiently addressed. This should be the resounding focus of the framework.

Secondly, I agree with the Centre for Cities and RTPI that the draft NPPF lacks a true spatial approach to planning. Where is the recognition that England is a network of urban areas that support economic growth?  Many of the references in the framework are to rural areas and the countryside which shifts the emphasis away from development towards protectionism.  The final NPPF must articulate what kind of cities the country requires and whether growth will be focused in some areas and not others.  Currently the NPPF lacks a spatial dimension which would aid economic and housing growth and give weight to what truly is 'sustainable development'. 

Thursday, 11 August 2011

'Spacing Vancouver' - Thinking outside the (newspaper) box

You can check out a feature article I have written for the Spacing Vancouver blog here.  The blog is an extension of the Spacing magazine which is now covering all Canadian urban and public space issues, following the original focus on just Toronto.  I will be looking to make some further contributions to the blog in coming months.

The Spacing Vancouver blog can be found here.