Britain's housing strategy

What's next after the crash

October 16, 2019
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How is Britain going to build the houses it needs and where will they go? It’s a problem that’s been confronted—with limited success—by a string of governments. How can Britain keep up with the ever-increasing demand for housing? Prospect and RICS brought together a group of experts at Labour party conference to discuss the problem.

“Since the crash 15 years ago, housing has really risen to the top of the agenda,” said Hew Edgar, the Head of UK Government Relations and City Strategy at RICS, who kicked off the debate. “When I first started it was all about numbers. Then a few years after that, the question was whether we were building enough homes at a decent pace. And in the last few years, the question has become quality—are we building homes that are good enough? Are they watertight? Are they energy efficient?”

It seems then that the answer to the housing problem is not only to increase supply. There is a tight knot of accompanying challenges, including the issue of land value, the skills shortage and the overly complex planning system. A solution to this problem will have to confront all of these problems—and more.

Victoria Hills, Chief Executive of the Town Planning Institute said: “We need to build more—but more of the right stuff.” There’s an assumption that the most crucial question is “how can we make homes more affordable,” she said. “But then we can’t assume everyone wants to own their own home.” What’s more, “the situation has not been helped by the cuts to planning departments in recent years.” The result has been an overall squeeze in the system.

“We are the outlier. We do our planning in a very odd way,” remarked Nicholas Boys Smith, founding director of Create Streets. UK housing construction projects are far less influenced by local requirements and local plans, he said, than in other countries. What’s more, he said, “we are reliant on a ridiculously small group of very big builders.” The answer, he said, is to beef up the power of the local authorities to follow through with their local plan.

Sachin Shah, a Councilor of Harrow Council, was well-placed to reflect on that suggestion. The layout of residential areas could have deep significance, not only for living standards, but for health too. “Harrow has been built around the car,” he said, “and has the highest car ownership in London.” That has led to an especially high incidence of diabetes in Harrow—the two are related, he suggested.

And then there are the more familiar challenges when it comes to gaining approval for new construction projects. “Everyone wants to solve the housing crisis, except when they’re signing a petition against a planning application,” he said, archly. But even so, “communities know better than anyone what they want in their area.” From that it follows that a lot can be gained by making the process more open.

Chris Wood, head of policy at Shelter was also concerned about the mismatch between housing supply and the homes that people really want: “Although we have massive need for housing… do we have enough demand for the types of houses we are building, especially the expensive kind?” he asked. “There’s a lot of talk about the housing crisis,” he said. “We need a big commitment to social housing.”

But perhaps it’s a mistake to concentrate on one end of the market, even if it’s the most socially urgent. “Healthy housing markets start in the middle,” said Mark Vlessing, CEO of Pocket Living. And if you want to build up the middle market, he said, then you have to reform the planning system, which currently advantages the big developers. Britain’s problem, he said, is that the housing debate is too politicised. “The way to solve the crisis is to make it boring. The way to make it boring is to hand it over to the Civil Service.”

Paul Smith, Councillor with oversight of housing, Bristol City Council had a different take. The problem is that in a lot of the country there’s no housing crisis, he said—in fact there’s a housing boom. “Just building more homes will not solve the housing crisis. You have to focus on the social end of the market.”

“Public ownership of land is key,” he said. Any public land should be offered to the local authority before it’s offered to the private sector. The answer is in “public sector-led, land-led development.”

Alex Cunningham is the Shadow Housing Minister. “We are determined to do something about land, and public-owned land is particularly important,” he said. “There’s so much of it. But no one’s tried to identify it in total.”

“There is a huge resource there—we’re not going to give it to the civil service. We’re looking at a national delivery body, similar to the one that brought the Olympics to London.”

“Local rents are absolutely critical,” he said. Rather than gathering up powers in the centre, much better to let local authorities have greater sway over local housing projects. “Because they know. They know what they need. They want places and communities,” said the shadow minister, “not housing estates.”