Low house-building levels and the unaffordability of existing homes are problems that have been plaguing Britain for decades. Yet contrary to popular belief, academic economists might have some practical answers to offer, argues Steve Davies, and illustrates his case using the “forever contemporary” thinking of Nobel-prize winner Ronald Coase.
Many think that the work of academic economists has little or no relevance to real world problems. Yet the insights of economics can show us how to resolve problems that otherwise seem intractable. A case in point is the work of one of the great economists, Ronald Coase, which shows ways to resolve planning laws and their impact on development.
There is now something of a consensus among academics and commentators that the shortage of housing (and buildings of all kinds) is one of our most pressing problems. Many others such as welfare costs and low productivity are at least partly caused by the lack of house building and the consequent high price of housing. However, this has not as yet led to any political action. The problem of course is the conflict of interest between people who want to build, buy or rent new houses on the one hand, and people who do not want new development on greenfield sites on the other. The second group have so far been able to block any action and this does not seem likely to change.
But the work of Coase shows that this deadlock is quite simply unnecessary and avoidable if we only think about it in the right way, as Mark Pennington explains. Current policy on development is shaped by conventional welfare economics, where two people engaging in a transaction can impose costs on bystanders. So a developer and a house buyer can impose costs on existing home owners and people who wish to preserve the rural environment. This is dealt with by regulations through planning laws.
As Pennington explains, Coase rejects this model. For him the costs are reciprocal – there are two sides each of whom is potentially imposing costs on the other. One wants to build houses, the other to preserve space. To the extent that one side gets its way the other suffers a loss. What we actually have is not an externality or pollution but a conflict over how to use land.
For Coase the solution was to assign a property right to one of the two sides and then allow a process of bargaining to take place. If the first group have the right then those who do not want development would have to pay them not to do it. If the second, then the developers (and ultimately the buyers) have to pay for the right to develop. Crucially it does not matter which of these two we go for: in either case we will end up with the outcome that maximises total welfare so long as the bargaining process itself is not too costly.
Fortunately, in the case of land use the cost of negotiation is low. If we applied this model instead of a complex and costly planning procedure we would simply have a default right, either to build or not, which would have to be bought out. We could make one default apply in some parts of the country and the other in the rest (although this should not matter, it might be politically astute). There would then be a process of bargaining and through this we would actually find out how much people really valued one alternative or the other (as opposed to their asserting it – words are cheap).
The result would be development in some areas but not in others and this would reflect the actual value that people collectively placed on the two competing uses and the associated moral values. This would be different in different places (unlike the inflexible present system). As Pennington points out this would also be an ethically superior outcome because it would reflect ethical and value pluralism rather than having one group’s values imposed on the rest through the political process which is what we have now.
Ronald Coase was one of our greatest and most original economists. His ideas can bring solutions to problems and conflicts that otherwise seem insurmountable. His challenges to conventional wisdom is what the Institute of Economic Affairs aims to highlight through publishing a collection of essays on Coase’s economics.
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