The public sector owns vast tracts of undeveloped land. Time to start building on itby Andrew Adonis / September 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
In my experience of public policy and government, big challenges do not always require complex solutions. Often the essential reforms are simple. I am also wary of the gibe: “If it were simple, it would have been done already.” This confuses “simple” with “easy”. If simple reforms are controversial and difficult to implement—because they radically challenge the status quo—then politicians tend to default into waffle, half measures or complex tweaks of the status quo, achieving little. This inaction, or avoiding action, can last decades.
The creation of academies, the Teach First training programme and the proposed High Speed Rail Two were all simple reforms or projects to address fundamental problems of (respectively) school standards and transport capacity. Yet at their inception they were very controversial and difficult.
These precepts seem to me to apply to today’s housing crisis, which is concentrated in London and the southeast, across much of which prices and rents are now sky high. The problem of grossly inadequate housing supply in southern England is multifaceted. The cast of culprits includes the planning system, the Green Belt, land banking by private developers, financial controls on local authorities, low numbers of houses built relative to available land (low “density” in the jargon), the operation of the “right to buy” scheme which allows council tenants to buy their council homes at a discount, foreign buyers treating London property as gold bars, the absence of a private rented sector managed by institutional investors, and more besides. Each of these issues has spawned micro-reform agendas, many of them highly complex. However, stand back, and two truths appear to me to get to the heart of the problem of housing supply, each of which needs to be addressed by simple—if difficult—reforms.