As party conference season draws to a close are we any closer to knowing how to deal with the housing crisis? Housing has certainly featured on the agenda and been the subject of much discussion at many fringe meetings, but have any of the parties come close to a comprehensive policy approach? Sadly, my initial conclusion would be that once more politicians have failed to grasp the magnitude of the problem and have instead come up with a whole load of ‘initiatives’ that play at the edges of the issue rather than provide a strategic, co-ordinated and coherent plan. We continue along the lines of a “pick ‘n’ mix” approach to housing policy, where pet projects and short term ‘solutions’ are promoted for electoral gain – appealing to target groups rather than providing solutions for those most in need.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some decent proposals and some that will undoubtedly make a difference to a small number of people. But where’s the plan? From the Tories we got a promise that they would build 100,000 new homes for first-time buyers under 40 which they could buy at 20% below the market rate. An interesting idea perhaps but not one that is going to solve the problem for many! Labour’s announcements were on a grander scale but perhaps lacked a little detail. They talked about building 200,000 homes per year, halting land banking and diversifying the house building industry – all laudable aims but talk is cheap. Where were the policies that many would have expected? The ones that focus on social housing, enabling councils to borrow and build, limiting right to buy options and facing the affordability crisis head on – mostly not there I’m afraid. And so, what have the Liberal Democrats offered us so far on housing? Well perhaps a slightly more comprehensive approach that focuses on building 300,000 homes per year, with new towns and urban extensions as part of the package, more power to local councils to build affordable housing and the ability to suspend right to buy. To be honest they came up with more of what I was expecting from Labour!
We have a housing crisis that means too many people can’t afford to buy or rent decent homes. And on the basis of what we have seen so far from our politicians we can be relatively certain that the comprehensive plans and policies are not going to come from the political parties, so where will the answers come from? We are of course still waiting for the full report from the Lyons Housing Review instigated by Labour, which is due out later this year. But in the meantime there have been a couple of publications that caught my attention. The first, “Rebuilding Britain: Planning for a better future” written by Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson is an excellent attempt to hit back at all those who see planning as the problem and instead takes us back to the pioneers of the planning movement and reminds of what is actually possible when you have “passionate ambition”. The second, “Housing: where’s the plan?” written by Kate Barker is more direct in its criticism, describing our inability to build more housing as the UK’s biggest policy failure. Its focus is on analysing the problem and providing some policy recommendations. Both books are excellent in their own way, they raise some interesting questions, provide a more comprehensive assessment of the problems and suggest some practical solutions.
In Rebuilding Britain the authors talk about access to land and land reform as a critical ingredient of achieving utopia, with smart choices needed along the way. As with the original garden city concept, capturing and redistributing the increase in land values generated by development are seen as central to future large scale development. The characterisation of Britain as a divided nation, as a nation without a plan and where people are disengaged from politics and planning will resonate with many as some of the major concerns we face as a nation. Their ‘solutions’, or practical steps as they are called in the book, focus on planning and take us through five main areas of change including a fair and efficient society; rebuilding trust; building the homes we need; providing a resilient and low carbon future; and paying for utopia.
Underpinning all of these areas is the need for a new kind of planner, a national plan for England, a new structure for planning and a new kind of government – big change indeed! Quite rightly Ellis & Henderson identify the housing challenge as moving beyond the question of whether we need to build more homes (of course we do), to the question of “where to build them, how we fund them, what the mix is and how do we ensure they are high quality”. Their answer is embedded in a new honesty about the problem, the opportunities and the constraints; about quality not just quantity; and through a varied housing offer including “high-quality social, affordable and market homes”. They do of course focus on ‘well planned new communities’ as a big part of the solution, based on Garden City principles which it is hard to disagree with. But as ever the big question is how you pay for the levels of social housing and infrastructure needed to make these places work. Of course the solution is there, it’s the same as it has always been – capturing the increase in land value for the benefit of the community. That’s the exact same principle as garden cities were based on and it remains the obvious solution now. Indeed it happens to an extent now, through S.106 agreements, Community Infrastructure Levy and planning conditions, but it is ad hoc and prone to difficulties and disagreements over viability. The political acceptability of extracting value from land for the benefit of the community has long been debated but perhaps it is time to revisit this issue with a new debate based on need?
Kate Barker’s book is based on the premise that we need to build more homes at a faster rate but that our ability to do this is held back by competing and vested interests that are inherent in our society and by government failure to address the issues systematically. Instead what we get are short term policies and initiatives that satisfy a few. The dynamics of the housing market perfectly exemplify many of the divisions in our society – the widening gulf in wealth between those who own their home and those that don’t and the increasing inequality between generations that this serves to reinforce. Barker suggests that many would define success in housing terms as “everyone should have access to a decent home at a price they can afford”. Difficult to disagree, but as she explains, the terms are open to extensive interpretation – the difference between need and want for instance?
Barker also addresses the thorny issue of taxing housing when so many people have so much of their wealth already tied up in property. Her solution is a mix of proposals from reforming Stamp Duty, higher council tax bands, and a move to charge Capital Gains Tax on main residence – potentially a rather radical suggestion but one which would help to deliver fairer housing outcomes. In total Barker proposes 11 main policy recommendations, which include providing stronger incentives to local authorities to produce sound housing plans, so they take responsibility for increasing local provision, with greater borrowing powers encouraging them to play a bigger role in land assembly. She also calls for direct financial incentives to those affected by a new development, an attempt to reign in the influence of the Nimbys, which may work but is it the right approach? Barker backs the call for garden cities and urban extensions, with new forms of funding and land assembly, as well as the encouragement of self-build as potentially more acceptable in some areas. Above all what Barker is looking for is a steadier, coherent, long term view of how to manage housing supply to meet housing needs – something I’m sure we can all agree on?
The reasons for our housing crisis are undoubtedly complex and embedded in decades of policy failure. The solutions will also be complicated but need to be built on a coherent plan, that deals with a long term approach to immediate problems and resists the temptation to meddle in short term, pick and mix solutions that satisfy no one!