What’s missing in UK housing policy and housing supply is clear and relatively simple – voice and choice. Those on the margins most affected by lack of delivery and supply rarely have a voice in decisions taken around housing policy and most of us have little choice in the form of supply available to us.
There are a whole host of statistics bandied around to illustrate the scale of the problem, but one that caught my attention was that the average time needed to save for a deposit is now 22 years compared to just 3 years back in 1997 – wow! now that is depressing!
Emma Reynolds, shadow Housing Minister, said in a recent speech that this is an “important moment for housing”, I would go further and argue that this is a critical moment for housing in the UK. Which, if we make the wrong choices now could see devastating long term social consequences for many. Now’s the time for politicians and policy makers to be bold, to plan long term and make those unpopular and difficult decisions – not something that comes naturally to many perhaps?
A good start, potentially, is the Labour Party decision to set up an Independent Housing Commission, chaired by Sir Michael Lyons. The remit of the Commission is to look at the changes needed to housing and planning policies and practice in order to deliver more homes, pretty wide ranging in many respects, but also quite narrow in others. What stops us building enough homes is not just about housing and planning policies; it’s about competition, land values and land markets, community resistance, lack of political will, inherent conservatism etc. the list goes on and at the heart of it maybe it’s also about deep-seated cultural and behavioural aspects. The need for housing has moved from a basic human need for shelter to one that sees housing as a commodity and an investment for the future. This in itself reinforces the need for house prices to rise or at least remain stable, so people can see a return on their investment, which in turn skews how we see the economics of the situation and the decisions we then make about housing policy.
So what’s the solution and what will come out of the Lyons Housing Commission? The questions/issues it sets out to address, do on the surface, to a non expert like myself, seem pretty sensible and useful:
- unlocking land for housing development
- investment in housing and associated infrastructure
- role of new towns and garden cities
- the right to grow
- share the benefits of development
For me, one of the biggest issues within this debate is the issue of the land value change created by the granting of planning permission – something successive governments have wrestled with ever since the introduction of the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act. I leave others far more qualified than I to talk about this in detail, but it seems to me that we never quite manage to get it right. We don’t seem capable of extracting enough value back to the community purse to enable us to provide appropriate and necessary infrastructure or to invest in enough affordable homes to meet demand, simple as that! So a state introduced form of regulation provides fantastic opportunities for private landowners to generate significant wealth for themselves, whilst putting little back into the communities and areas they are affecting, not exactly a philosophy I am comfortable with. But a massive issue for the Lyons Review to address if we are to crack this problem once and for all – although I’m not sure I’ll hold my breath on that one.
The issue of cities and their hinterlands is also an interesting one. The Lyons Review documentation talks about the relationship between neighbouring councils and a city’s right to grow, and how we provide the incentives for growth outside of tight city boundaries. This is a big issue, which plays out rather painfully in the Bristol area, with the city boundary currently drawn so that any space for real expansion to meet the growth demands of the city is only possible within neighbouring authorities who are consistently resistant to housing growth. There’s an obvious answer to this one, if cities are the centre of our growth strategy for the UK and play such an important role in producing GDP and GVA growth, then allow them the control over their own ability to grow. Redraw the boundaries and give places like Bristol space to grow, without the need to cajole, negotiate, liaise, discuss, persuade, and argue with other surrounding councils, who quite frankly are never going to agree! Give cities control over their own hinterland.
I like the idea of a new wave of garden cities and new towns, I’m a big fan of the concept personally. The issue here though, as with many aspects of the housing supply debate, is about location, location, location. As soon as you start talking about lines on maps, plots of land and possible locations, all the negatives start coming out, all the resistance begins. So we can talk about it in the abstract and many people will agree the concepts, politicians will sign up to the idea, as they are at the moment. But as soon as that first notion of where one might be built is in the public domain or even first mooted, everyone begins to have second thoughts, politicians get nervous, the anti-protest begins. If we rely on localism and community buy-in, we will never deliver a new town or garden city again, it just won’t happen. Politicians will need to be brave and risk upsetting a few people if they want to build bold new projects, HS2 is a prime example of that, if the need is there and there are clear benefits to more people then difficult and unpopular decisions will need to be taken.
Some would argue that actually what we need to solve the crisis is more of a bottom up approach rather than greater controls and imposition by government. That is, the people and communities most disadvantaged by the lack of affordable housing need to be encouraged and enabled to find solutions for themselves. They need to understand the full range of choices that could be available with the right encouragement and the right financial, land and legislative framework. That includes self build, custom build, co-housing schemes and community land trusts as very real options for increasing our housing supply. We seem a world away from this at the moment.
It will be interesting to see just how much comment and feedback the Lyons Review gets from non-vested interests, people outside of the housing and planning professions or building industries. At the moment I’d be surprised if many people had actually heard about it, let alone considered responding to it.
I’d like to see both a top down and bottom up approach combined, that brings together the best of what’s happening elsewhere in Europe and the world, that provides both voice and choice to people in their housing decisions. Interesting times indeed for housing policy, but will we rise to the challenge?