The Problem with Housing Policy

The problem with housing policy is we are all just too passive, we don’t take control. We know there is a problem, even if some deny it. We know volume house builders and housing associations seem incapable, unable or unwilling to solve the problem – that is they are not building enough homes each year to house all the people that desire a home at a price they can afford. Yet for some reason we just sit back passively waiting for someone else to sort it all out. Perhaps we could learn a lesson or two from history?

In UK housing history there are some fantastic examples of people taking control for themselves, of claiming areas of land and building their own home. Perhaps the best example is that of the ‘plotlanders’ of South East England in the early 20th Century, where areas of disused agricultural land were sold off in small plots to people wanting to build their own holiday home or small holding, these were then gradually improved and extended into permanent homes. This was all pretty much unregulated (before the introduction of the 1947 Planning Act) and led to quite strange areas of ad hoc layouts and designs around the Essex coast. But whatever they looked like, these were fiercely independent communities, who had built their own homes, without help from those in power, they’d done it through self help and mutual aid – an interesting concept often mentioned by Colin Ward in his writings on housing and planning – borne out of anarchist philosophy where people come together in voluntary cooperation without the need for state intervention, authority and control. There are many examples of squatters and others who have reclaimed the land, taking over derelict or empty properties to turn these into much needed homes, or travellers who have purchased land and tried to settle on it.These examples in recent times are, however, all to infrequent and unsuccessful, often written off as the fringe activity of a radical few and stifled by regulation and enforcement action.

Given the large numbers of people who can no longer afford a decent home to live in you have to wonder why it is that more direct action or self help has not been the order of the day. What is that would generate this tipping point where people seek to take control for themselves? Or have we really become a nation of passive people happy to rely on the private market or state to provide for our basic needs? It’ll be interesting to see just how bad things have to get before we see real change in this area.

One of the things that does appear to be happening at the moment is a slight shift of attention away from mass build towards self build or custom build as an option for housing supply. In the UK this is but a tiny proportion of current build (7-10%) compared to other European Countries where the figure is more likely to be over 50%. Recent reports by Alex Morton of the Policy Exchange and the Self Build Government Industry Working Group both refer to the potential of  self build to make a much greater contribution to housing provision. Both also refer to the planning system as a major barrier to this happening at the moment, as well as land values, difficulties of financing schemes, mortgage lenders etc. So it seems there could be a solution, based on the idea of self help, that is gathering some interest at last.It remains to be seen whether or not anything will happen as a result of these various reports and to what extent the Lyons Housing Review recently set up by the Labour Party will even consider this as part of the solution, or whether it will focus instead on typical mass scale solutions like new towns and garden cities?

Alex Marsh in a recent blog on housing talks about the need to go back to first principles and suggests that 2014 could just be the year where we see the housing policy debate get serious – couldn’t agree more and let’s hope he is right. But to do that could involve some quite radical thinking and radical change in not just housing policy, but also planning policy and other areas too.

One things for sure, something needs to change or we might just reach that tipping point where people do begin to take control for themselves!

8 thoughts on “The Problem with Housing Policy

  1. I am sure self build is great for most of those who attempt it! I doubt that it is the answer to the looming housing ‘crisis’. England (and I have used that deliberately) is expected to continue to have a population which increases at approximately 400,000 people per year. This is roughly the size of the City of Bristol in about 2000. So, for the next 20 years we have, in theory, to build 20 cities the size of Bristol……..This will not be achieved without changing a lot of things! Height and density will be real issues, as will the expansion into ‘green fields’ either in the green belt or deep in the countryside as ‘Green Cities’. So far, I haven’t seen any political party proposing a method of achieving the changes required other than saying, “we will build more than the other party”. HOW?

    We have the same issue in the City of Bristol where the population is expected to grow by 11.5% or some 40,000 people between the 2011 and 2021 census. This is not South Glos or North Somerset, this is in the City. So we need something like 17,500 homes. WHERE? Again, I haven’t seen any real policy on how this will be achieved.


  2. Robert – I agree with what you are saying, but in terms of the difference between the level of custom build in the UK and other EU countries it seems strange that we don’t do more. It is not the answer, but potentially part of the answer.


    • The problem with it is density- it isn’t generally suitable for building apartments which we will have to do to achieve anything like the numbers needed. Personally I’d love to see more self build- including building my own.


  3. It’s ironic that at a time when homes – and particularly homes that most people can afford – are in supremely short supply, that activities such as squatting should have been criminalised. Far more could be done to re-use the still large number of empty properties – by decriminalising squatting, for a start; and by punitive levels of Council Tax (Shelter recommended 400% at one point, if I recall rightly) on property left empty beyond six months or not on the market at a reasonable price after six months. Second homes could also be made unattractive through a change in taxation policy. Measures such as these would maximise the supply we already have, which in the private sector far more than the public sector, is wastefully under-occupied. Such measures would “hurt” the property-owners so I can’t see the Coalition adopting them any time soon, but in the interests of justice and fairness, if we can’t build new homes – and without a massive social house-building programme, we are not going to solve the housing crisis – then at least we can make far better use of the homes which we already have. And as they are already here, there are some quick wins to be had.


  4. Jenny, absolutely agree with your comments about making better use of what we have, this has got to be part of the solution. Equally, I’m not sure mass council house building is the answer either. Surely there has to be a better way – I’m interested to see how we can promote custom build to the same levels as other European countries as I do believe this shift in approach could help to solve some of the problems we are experiencing. It need not be low density, cooperative housing movements in Germany and elsewhere do custom build in quite high density provision. We’re just not thinking radically enough!


    • Mass council/RP house building (with the RtB removed, once and for all) would redress the supply deficit and a hugely-increased supply would drive down private rents. This is a good end in itself. It might well also lead to private landlords putting their BTL properties back on the market, price falls and consequently making them more affordable for first-time buyers (especially as with cheaper rents, there wouldn’t be the same incentive to buy).

      Unfortunately, market housebuilders do not have any incentive to build and bring to the market the number of new homes that are needed, as they too would experience falling sales prices and a cut in profit. They are profit-driven and simply can’t and won’t afford to build the numbers of homes we need, nor the types and sizes we need, in the places where we need them – it would be long-term business suicide. We can’t blame them for that, they have to make a profit or go bust. We have to have a vibrant, volume public sector housebuilding programme if we are ever to create the right types and size of home for the people who need them.

      A public sector housing supply, no longer just for desperate cases but for anyone and everyone who wants and needs a public sector home (and right now, that’s the vast majority of newly-forming households) would create mixed, sustainable communities – rather like they used to be before RtB destroyed them.


      • Coops appear to be much more prevalent in other countries especially Germany which has a long tradition of them. I have always thought them to be a good idea so why aren’t they common in the UK? How can coops be financed to enable them to provide housing for lower income families?


  5. Robert – exactly the question I am interested to look at, why are these alternative forms of housing, so popular elsewhere, largely marginalised here in UK? Cooperative housing, self and custom build, kit design etc. all offer realistic and viable alternatives to volume build, more personal, local in scale and more likely to meet real needs.


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