When did anyone last hear officials and professionals talking enthusiastically about the social and economic benefits resulting from the subdivision of land to create secure, clean and tradable title?
Indeed, any planning document is likely to include a long list of potential problems caused by the subdivision, but will mention few, if any, of the benefits. Maybe it’s time to rethink this conventional planning wisdom. In Peru, during the eighties, Hernando De Soto and the Institute for Liberty and Democracy promoted land reforms that led to more than 1.2 million rural families being given titles to the land they worked. One major grant of titles to a whole village was celebrated on television. When the reporter asked a woman “Why is having title important for your family?” she replied “Having secure title means I can now go out to work.” She went on to explain that the family’s past “customary settlement” required continual occupancy and eternal vigilance. Some member of the family had to be on the property at all times, or else someone else could move in.
During a recent BBC television news bulletin on the floods in Pakistan, reporter Orla Guerin said “Many here are bound to their land and their livestock, and will live or die with them. We spotted one young boy, clinging to the top of an electricity pylon. He climbed down to collect a bag food aid, but refused to be removed from the waters.”
I suspect he was also concerned with the need to help maintain his family’s right to occupy.
City officials and urban planners in particular are always claiming that their cities are “running out of land”. Of course they are not running out of land. They are surrounded with it, as any air traveler knows, just from looking out the window.
However, they are short of land with a certificate of title that allows the landowner to develop the property for housing or anything else. One reason for this shortage lies with the costs and often onerous conditions of compliance are simply too high. The French Revolutionaries learned that when they fixed the price of bread at less than it cost to bake a loaf, the bakers simply stopped baking bread. When it costs more to gain a title than the lot can be sold for, we should not be surprised if people stop creating lots.
Suburban residential development creates many jobs and the residents who move continue to create new employment opportunities for decades. Every home owner becomes a property developer as they add rooms, sleepouts, new decks and swimming pools and upgrade their kitchens, and so on. I should have emphasized that it’s the land around the dwelling that enables so many of these projects to take place over the decades and to create so many jobs.
If Smart Growth policies force people to live in apartments, their opportunities to improve their dwellings become seriously limited.
City governments appear to overlook the economic and employment impact of rejecting large-scale developments, but the cumulative effect of a multitude of prohibitions of smaller proposals is equally serious – especially in a small economy like New Zealand or a relatively unpopulated place like Montana.
During the nineteenth century the key function of governments in the New World was to churn out titles as quickly as possible.
Surveyors served as the true frontiersmen, enabling the migrants to arrive, put down their roots, and build. The post-war suburban boom repeated this experience, supported by an equal enthusiasm for creating a property owning democracy.
Then during the 1990s, “The Age of Environmentalism” arrived and activists persuaded decision-makers in the developed world that the creation of titles enabled polluting humans to possess the Earth Mother and must be stopped, or be made as difficult as possible. These constraints on land supply created the short-term property boom, and the inevitable bust that led to the greatest financial crisis in recent history.
The developing nations and their economists continue to recognize the value of title. The works of Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian economist, emphasize that the major problem facing people in poor countries has been their lack of secure title to land, which constrains their ability to borrow significant sums of money and put down secure roots. As he says, the family with title builds a dwelling; the family that squats invests in furniture. This has led to his founding leadership of The Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Peru.
At the recent conference of international surveyors in Sydney it was quite exhilarating to hear surveyors and officials from Peru talking of targets of 150,000 new titles per year. They knew full well that titles generate wealth. Maybe it’s time for New World cities to set similar targets and share de Soto’s enthusiasm for the contribution of subdivision to ongoing liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Bankers have long recognized that many families’ main means of saving is paying off their mortgage. Equally, many aging citizens fund their retirement by subdividing their large lots to create a nest egg for the future. Most university-indoctrinated central planners regard this as an “inappropriate” activity.
Unexpected Super Large-Lot zoning in rural areas can suddenly deprive thousands of people of a secure and active retirement. Of course the planners claim the landowners are still able to subdivide, but just have to go through an approval process. Then the same planners make sure the costs and uncertainties render the exercise prohibitive. Their environmental cost benefit analysis ignores this destruction of individual wealth – and dreams.
I wonder if any advanced developed country planning school has Hernando de Soto on its reading list?
Instead of encouraging the creation of titles, as history suggests we should, the Smart Growth central planners have persuaded our governments to penalise the creation of new lots by imposing highly expensive and highly regressive fines called “development contributions” – which are actually anti-development levies.
We tax cigarette smokers to discourage smoking, and we fine speedsters to discourage speeding. Should we be fining the creators of legal title if our aim is to encourage development, promote employment growth, increase savings and promote personal well-being?
Some politicians, like Maurice Williamson, New Zealand’s Minister for Building and Construction ARE determined to reduce the costs of building consents and inspections. But these are trivial compared to the costs of subdivision and land use consents.
And there is something of an international movement away from rule based management of development and a return towards broader concerns of society and the people who inhabit it.
But before any legislative reforms can be effective we need to learn to once again celebrate secure, tradable, private title. This remains one of Western Civilisation's greatest contributions to our wealth, health and general well-being.
Owen McShane is Director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies, New Zealand.
Photo by Brenda Anderson