Housing Crisis – Confusion Abounds!

DSCN0285Oh no, not another blog on the housing crisis! There seem to be so many at the moment and just as I think about writing one, someone gets there before me with many of the issues I was going to write about. So why am I bothering? Well over the last few weeks I’ve come across some interesting examples of good and bad policy and practice that impacts on housing and I’ve written about some of it briefly in different blogs or articles relating to different topics, but now seems like a good time to bring some of it together, as a contribution to this ongoing debate. So read on if you can bear to!

I’m certainly not suggesting I have the answers or solutions, but merely some thoughts on the type of issues that need addressing and some examples of just how much better they are addressed elsewhere. Also, my take on some of the solutions offered by others is that on their own they won’t work, but maybe together and combined with other things there are some answers out there that might just make a difference, we’re just not joining things up properly. And that’s about joining up locally as much as it is about joining up centrally at national policy level, not all the blame rests with central government, local councils can be just as much at fault for contributing to the problem.

What strikes me most about some of the debate is the serious lack of any strategic planning in the UK at the moment. Ever since the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and the Regional Spatial Strategies we have been left with a void of strategic planning, reinforced by the Localism Act and its emphasis on local councils taking control of decisions about the supply of housing. So we have a government that says it wants to build more homes but which refuses to set targets for local councils to meet. Local councils when agreeing their plans listen to the voices that shout loudest, those that want to preserve and protect. In cities that means all those that want to keep derelict or green spaces close to their houses just as they are and in more rural areas that means those intent on protecting every blade of grass from any form of development. The outcome is fewer homes planned for in Local Development Frameworks and fewer sites allocated for development and fewer houses built (a slightly simplistic overview, but you get the point?).

Interestingly, a recent case in North Somerset may well be the catalyst to change some of this, although the final outcome is still awaited as the council have yet to respond in detail to the ruling (for more detail see an article I wrote for Bristol 24-7). Effectively, the council has just been told its plan is likely to be considered unsound and doesn’t comply with national policy because it doesn’t make enough provision for new homes, according to a Planning Inspectors report, brought about after a challenge from Bristol University. Previously, the councils immediate response to the removal of national targets was to take over 10,000 houses out of its plans. The council is now having to reconsider that approach and accept that their assessment of need doesn’t fit with that of the most recent planning inspectors view, which brings into question the whole underlying approach of ‘self-containment’ at the heart of their plan. It both baffles and bemuses me how a council that sits so close to Bristol and its boundary can draw up a plan that tries to ignore the relationship with the city, but that’s what they did!

The lesson to be drawn from this, in my view, is that some form of national target for house building is critical. The Regional Spatial Strategies were by no means perfect, were hated by many and perhaps weren’t in place long enough to judge quite whether or not they would have delivered, but something that takes an overall strategic view of growth and the need to plan for it over a longer period has got to be better than what we have at the moment. A proper process of negotiation and compromise to agree local targets to help meet national targets has got to be better than the current conflict based approach where councils do one thing, developers challenge and government inspectors then impose housing numbers and changes to plans that have already been agreed locally.

Another issue that struck me relates to this whole debate about taxing housing and/or land. This seems to be something that rears its head every now and then, and used to be something that changed with every change of government, post 1947 when the Planning Act was first introduced. For me the critical point is about land value increases secured as a result of planning permission, again something that has been long debated, and is pretty unlikely to hit the agenda under the current government. Now I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that landowners shouldn’t be able to benefit financially from securing planning permission on their land, but in my view there needs to be some control on this, to reduce speculative permissions and development and to enable more affordable developments to take place. Perhaps we could try something like the system used in Freiburg, where there are few if any volume house builders as land is bought up by the council and parcelled off in smaller plots to encourage small builders, self build, custom build and cooperative housing schemes, something we see very little of in the UK. Over there they have a system that freezes land prices, where the value of land pre and post planning permissions is set at a more sensible rate, so there is still profit to be had but not to the extent of the land market over here. Now surely that makes land for housing more affordable which in turn makes housing more affordable – doesn’t it?

Understanding cities and how they operate seems to me to be critical to this debate about housing, most of us now live in cities and urban areas and that trend looks set to continue. The notion that we can keep cramming our cities with higher and higher density housing, using up every last piece of green space, without thinking about the impact this has on the people living in those communities and neighbourhoods is just plain daft. But that seems to be what is happening, there are constant cries that there is plenty of brownfield land to be developed, we don’t need to expand our cities and encroach on that sacrosanct piece of land that is the great British greenbelt. Well, sorry, but I disagree. Many people don’t want to live in high density areas, they don’t want to live in apartments without gardens, and they don’t want to live in urban spaces with no greenery or green space to enjoy. So at some point, something has got to give and as a town planner myself, I would rather it gave in a planned and coordinated way than a speculative, unplanned manner that will only lead to development in all the wrong places. I think it is time to have a proper grown up debate about the green belt, about expanding our cities and their boundaries to encompass sustainable growth along transport corridors, where local facilities can be planned in to meet community needs, whilst at the same time preserving and protecting valuable green space within and outside cities and creating new ‘green belts’ where they are needed.

The problem with all this is it means some form of government intervention, which pretty much goes against the grain of recent and current thinking. The focus instead is on relaxing state intervention, particularly when it comes to our planning system, as there are constant calls for fewer regulations so developers can get on and build. Or intervention is focused on the individual, through schemes like Help to Buy, rather than on a collective need requiring wider intervention which might actually make a difference.

So the debate continues, as I am sure will the many housing blogs, as government, both local and national, fails to get to grips with the issues and fails to make the difference that is needed.


Time to review our Green Belt Policy

pic1As unpopular an idea as it may be I’m not sure politicians can avoid the need to talk about reviewing the green belt for much longer. With all the discussion about the UK housing crisis: rising prices, reducing affordability, scarcity of land and under supply of homes, it seems that those with an interest in housing are almost all agreed that increasing supply is one of the key ways of reducing our housing problem. How we do that is however a matter for debate – some would say it can be done by bringing empty homes back into use, densification and development on brownfield land, without the need to consider greenfield or green belt land. Others would argue that greenfield and green belt is a necessary part of the equation. But in typical UK style we are not taking a particularly long term, strategic or comprehensive approach to this, we are chipping away at the issue, encouraging local councils to consider the issues locally without really providing any clear national guidance. The result is confusion, uncertainty and unplanned, ad hoc developments that don’t really satisfy anyone.

So, what’s all the fuss about anyway, what is the green belt and why do we hang on to this historic policy so desparately? Green belt policy dates back to the 1930s and 1940s and its original purpose still holds true today, that is, to prevent urban sprawl and act as a buffer between towns. Green belt land accounts for about 13% of land area in England and is seen by many as valuable and by others as a major obstacle. The main purpose of green belt policy is spelt out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) as follows:

  • to check the unrestricted sprawl of large built-up areas
  • to prevent neighbouring towns merging into one another
  • to assist in safeguarding the countryside from encroachment
  • to preserve the setting and special character of historic towns
  • to assist in urban regeneration, by encouraging the recycling of derelict and other urban land

It would be true to say that green belt policy has been one of our most effective planning policies, it has undoubtedly helped planners and communities to protect open spaces around cities and towns and has stopped the merger of built up areas. There are clear advantages to the policy that are as relevant now as they were when it was first established. Therefore I wouldn’t argue for a removal of the policy, as it is both valuable and effective. But I would argue for a full national review of the policy, assessing the quality, impact and relevance of current designations. Since the policy was first introduced many things have changed about the way we live our lives, about the way we commute and about the way our urban areas work. That’s why the policy needs to be reviewed, to take on board commuting patterns, to protect valuable open spaces within urban areas, to maintain varied density levels in urban areas and to contribute to the overall sustainability of our cities and towns. At the moment, green belt policy can be seen to have a negative effect on many of these aspects and is a hindrance to the ability of local councils to provide for new affordable homes in places that people want to live.

The key to this discussion is generating the right balance between protection and review, and to generating a rational debate about the issues without the kind of scaremongering promoted by some aspects of our media and some politicians and campaign groups. Since when was it more important to protect a piece of land than it was to house vulnerable people or provide choice in our housing market for those that need somewhere to live – because that’s what it boils down to in the end – real political choices and at the moment those protecting the land are winning!

There are many in the housing arena who are getting wise to this idea and various campaigns have started up over the last few years, such as Yes to Homes, SHOUT, and Priced Out but the Nimby and environmental lobby, CPRE, National Trust and others still seem to have the ear of our national politicians to the point where they are willing to sacrifice not providing enough homes in order to protect certain areas of land. Now I’m not suggesting a free for all, where all land is up for development, far from it. But it is definitely time for entrenched positions to be challenged and for a grown up debate about green belt land. With a proper review we could achieve all our objectives, by opening up relevant, appropriate and accessible land for development whilst maintaining and enhancing areas of green belt land for the future. Without a proper review, we will see constant battles over small pieces of land, continuing undersupply of housing, or poorly located housing, and further erosion of valuable open spaces within our urban areas.Town cramming is a very real issue, with huge implications, just ask town planners in the Netherlands who faced this years ago around Amsterdam and the Randstad.

The solution to the housing crisis is by no means simple, and reviewing the green belt to release land is not the only answer, but I can’t help but feel it needs to be part of the solution?

Housing in a civilised society – how did we get it so wrong?

DSCN1078Over the last week or so I have been immersed in reading about housing policy in the UK (all part of essay writing and planning for my dissertation). As a result, I now know more about housing markets, housing bubbles, sub prime lending, commodification, securitization, tenure transition and all kinds of other housing issues and problems than I ever thought I would or indeed would want to. The problem is that so much of it doesn’t actually make sense, it doesn’t appear to be logical or even appear that policy interventions could ever be expected to achieve their aims or deliver the desired change. Maybe that’s the point, maybe that’s why UK housing policy seems to be such a contradiction of ideology and failed delivery and why we still have an ever increasing housing crisis?

Undoubtedly, as a novice in this whole area, part of the reason it doesn’t make sense is inevitably down to my inability to understand and comprehend, as I am sure there are many policy people out there who do get it. But what struck me during the many happy hours of reading was the lack of clarity over what precisely our government has been trying to achieve with their housing interventions other than the obvious ideological drive for a property owning democracy introduced in the 1980s by Thatcher and largely supported by successive governments. For sure, none of them really seem to be trying to stabilise prices over the long term by creating the right conditions for increasing the supply of new homes to meet the demand for houses – they might say they are but the evidence is against them. Different policy interventions either seem to solve one problem whilst causing another or have all kinds of unexpected consequences that undermine the initial intention of the policy to start with – assuming we can believe what they say they are trying to do.

A good example is the recent contradiction of supply and demand measures that on the one hand support first time buyers (through schemes like Help to Buy) to access owner occupation by making it easier to borrow, whilst also removing national housebuilding targets through the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies, ensuring the supply of new houses has hit an all time low which, when coupled with the aftermath of recession and its impact on the building industry, merely serves to reinforce the housing crisis as demand outstrips supply. The end result appears to be an increase in house prices which of course will surprise no one, but which does of course make it more difficult for many households to purchase their own home as they become more unaffordable to growing numbers. So home ownership declines further despite the government still re-stating its ambition for promoting home ownership – confusion abounds!

But you might ask, why do we care so much about housing markets anyway? What’s the problem with boom and bust cycles in housing? Shouldn’t we just leave it to the market, isn’t that what neo-liberalism is all about? And this is where yet another confusion or contradiction occurs, when government tries to intervene to reduce volatility in the housing market. The whole approach in recent years has been about state intervention, from counter-cyclical measures like credit controls and property taxes to incentives for new build, not exactly leaving it to the market then?

Having said that the implications of continual boom and bust in the housing market go beyond housing, to economic, social and political impacts, so you can see why governments get nervous and feel the need to do something. We have a dysfunctional housing market where house price increases far outstrip any increase in earnings which in turn leads to all kinds of problems such as unequal housing choices, increased risk, and repossessions, causing a growing divide between those that have been able to enter the realms of owner occupation and those that have not.

The answer to the problem according to many commentators is increasing housing supply, we are simply not building enough new homes to meet the continual and growing demand. So the focus should be on land availability, unblocking stuck sites, enabling conversions and supporting the construction industry to deliver. Indeed some policies have been aimed at doing just that but with limited success whilst other policies have conflicted with this aim – increasing land supply is difficult when the government seems to be stuck on pandering to Nimbyism by resisting calls to review green belt boundaries or by refusing to have national housing targets and thereby leaving the difficult decision of how many houses we need to make space for in the hands of local politicians. The net result is fewer homes being built and a worsening housing crisis.

Others, such as Dorling, have argued that we have enough housing but that it is unequally distributed therefore what is required is a dramatic redistribution of housing. According to Dorling if we build more houses it will just result in the wealthy owning more homes, so a more sophisticated solution is needed that redistributes housing. The problem with this is it is unlikely to be very popular and will therefore be unpalatable politically.

So we know what the problem is but the solutions appear unclear and policies in one area create problems in another. As I said in my last post on housing, is it any wonder politicians  are confused, I know I am. But at the heart of the housing issue are the principles of equality and choice, creating the conditions for people to have access to decent accommodation is critical to a civilised society, yet even now we seem to be failing!

All things housing – politicians take cover!

Social housing in ViennaLast week I did my first in depth radio interview for some time on the topic of housing. This was a discussion with Tony Gosling from BCfm Politics Show (21st March 2014). Preparing for it got me thinking about a whole host of issues to do with housing and how successive governments have approached these issue – has government policy created housing bubbles? has it helped or hindered the stabilisation of the housing market? what is the motivation behind much of our housing policy? does it make any real difference to housing aspirations and housing choice? Key questions to address if we are to understand what the solutions to our housing crisis are. Some or all of these issues will no doubt find their way into future blogs.

But back to the interview – we covered lots of different issues all of which form part of the housing problem as well as some of the solutions – such as, housing waiting lists, help to buy, affordable housing, why we don’t build enough homes, land banking, criminalisation of squatting, custom build and the conversion of empty office buildings before we got into a conversation about “what is town planning?”. What struck me during this discussion was the number of issues that immediately come to mind when talking about housing and how so many of these things are interlinked and connected. So is it any wonder that when faced with the big question of how we solve the housing crisis politicians take cover or merely come out with 1 or 2 simple policy interventions that may or may not make a positive difference?

From a policy perspective it seems to me that the solutions are less than clear, many are not easy to implement and there may well be some we haven’t yet thought of or haven’t tried recently. Equally, there seems to be disagreement about what will make the most difference, where our priorities should be and what we should focus on. Again, it is not entirely surprising that national and local politicians therefore fix on some simple solutions, or quick fixes, that may well have a whole range of unanticipated or unintended consequences, that could actually make the problem worse.

The challenge for anyone involved in housing policy, it seems to me, is threefold:

  • reaching some kind of consensus on what we are seeking to achieve as well as the priorities and solutions that are needed;
  • identifying simple and quick solutions that will satisfy the political game leading up to the next election that won’t have significant adverse impacts on the desired longer term direction; and
  • developing a longer term strategy for shaping housing policy into the future which we can work towards in short, medium and long term.

There’s a serious job of work to be done by housing and policy professionals to lay the groundwork for a solutions based realistic answer to the housing crisis, otherwise it will only get worse as politicians flounder, grabbing at any easy solution presented to them. The debate is already happening and politicians are taking note, now more so than for many years, but will it be enough and are we focused on the right issues? It’s a fascinating time to be interested in housing policy and politics and it’s a debate I’ll watch with interest.

If you listen to the podcast of our discussion (my interview starts at about 25 mins) it will very soon become clear that I know less about housing issues than I thought and even less about how the economy works! I can however talk about it all for hours, even if I do hate listening to myself on the radio.





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!