Good start

Today’s housebuilding figures for England are the best since before the election of the coalition in March 2010.

While it’s always unwise to rely on one quarter’s figures, for once it seems hard to quibble with the positive spin put on them by Brandon Lewis. The housing minister was at best creative in his use of stats before the election as good news on starts was matched by bad on completions and vice-versa. However, these particular figures, which still cover the period under the coalition, seem to spin themselves.

For the first time since the end of 2007, the January to March 2015 quarter saw more than 40,000 starts. The total was up 31 per cent on the previous quarter and 11 per cent on a year earlier and the private sector, housing associations and local authorities all recorded increase.

And that was matched by an increase in completions to 34,040, the highest level seen since the end of 2008 (though still 10 per cent below the quarterly average between 2000 and 2007). Increases of 10 per cent on the previous quarter and 21 per cent on a year ago are more modest but there was also solid progress by both the private sector and housing associations.

The question now, as the CIH points out in its response, is whether this momentum can be sustained. In its analysis, Capital Economics argues that the starts figure in particular may reflect some catching up after two successive falls in the final two quarters of 2010 rather than a step-shift to a new higher output level.

And to put those increases in perspective, starts and completions in the year to March 2015 totalled 140,000 and 125,000. In other words, the best quarterly figure since the financial crisis still leaves us way below the 245,000 a year Barker review benchmark. As I blogged three months ago, we are still seeing consistently large deficits in new homes and the debt or accumulated shortfall now stands at 1.2 million new homes since the report was published.

All of which puts increased pressure on the government to deliver on its manifesto commitments. The promises on Help to Buy, starter homes, the right to build, garden cities and public land all sounds impressive on paper. However, the overall balance still seems titled more towards demand than supply, and helping housebuilders without necessarily helping housebuilding, and the manifesto also included a pledge to protect the green belt.

Under the coalition, the government faced both ways on localism when it came to new homes, encouraging nimbyism in its opposition to Labour’s regional strategies but publishing the NPPF as a counterweight. That’s reflected in a mixed picture locally with some areas (Lewis highlighted Barnet, Manchester and Winchester) seeing spectacular increases but others (including many outer London boroughs) seeing fewer new homes started than a year ago. Kingston, for example, saw just 10 new homes started and completed while Richmond only managed 20.

Public attitudes to new homes have changed. The appointment of Greg Clark as communities secretary with a commitment to the devolution of power could signal a more positive intent within government. These figures are a start. But housebuilding still needs all the help it can get.

Originally posted on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

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