A look ahead to the Budget part one: the land question

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on November 13.

More than ever before, this year’s Budget looks like a watershed moment for housing.

Philip Hammond is under mounting pressure from all sides to do something big and bold and break with the failed policies of the past.

The calls for something radical are coming from more than just the usual suspects and are for more than just a cheque with lots of zeros.

Conservative MPs know that they cling to power (just) thanks to the votes of elderly home owners. Brexit may dominate everything but many of them realise that beneath the surface housing is one of the key issues poisoning their relationship with the under-45s.

They understand that cynical policies like Help to Buy are no longer enough, that the party is running out of time and that it has to look at policies that were previously unthinkable.

Yet conventional wisdom says that we’ve heard all this before, that Hammond’s caution and the Treasury’s orthodoxy will turn thinking that was big and bold into outcomes that are tame and timid on November 22.

After the announcements in the last few weeks of an extra £10bn for Help to Buy, another £2bn for social housing and the u-turn on the LHA cap for social and supported housing, how much is left for the chancellor to say (or spend)?

However, another view says that the housing question has such serious social, economic and political implications that the answers cannot be put off any longer. See this blog by Toby Lloyd for a good round-up of some possibilities.

In a series of columns ahead of the Budget, I’ll be looking at some of the crucial questions concerning investment, tax and welfare and, to kick things off, land. Will the Budget be big and bold – or tame and timid?

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Simple ‘solutions’ plague our thinking about housing

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 29. 

‘What makes the housing crisis so maddening is that there is a simple solution: Britain needs to get building.’

So ran a tweet a couple of weeks ago from The Economist about an article on How to Solve Britain’s Crisis. Unleash the market, build on the green belt and, hey presto, the housing crisis is over.

In fairness, the article’s proposition was a bit more complicated than the tweet implied – it also proposed reform of stamp duty and council tax – but it is still an illustration of the way that ‘simple solutions’ plague our thinking about housing.

What I mean by that is that there may well be good arguments that can be made for building on the green belt, or rent control, or building a million council houses, or prefabrication or any of the other quick fixes that are routinely trotted out.

It’s certainly hard to see a solution that does not involve more homes, better conditions for private renters, a greater role for local authorities and innovations in construction.

However, it’s quite different when one of them is proposed as the solution. Usually this is by one of the ‘unleash the market’ brigade who believe that the housing crisis is all down to planning.

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Happy birthday MK

Originally posted on January 25 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

Even if 50 is the new 40 (I rationalised that one long ago) this week’s anniversary of the birth of Milton Keynes is a significant moment in the history of housing – and what was once its future.

MK, as locals call it, has come a long way since it was designated a new town in January 1967 with a brief to become a city. The population is now 250,000 and rising and it has even imported its own football team.In much of the birthday coverage this week it’s called “Britain’s last new town”, probably because it was the biggest and the last to be finished.

In fact, it was the first of the third wave of post-War new towns to be designated: Peterborough celebrates its 50th birthday in July, with Northampton, Warrington, an expanded Telford, and Central Lancashire to follow over the next three years.

But in a week when Theresa May’s cabinet met in Warrington for the launch of her industrial strategy, it’s worth asking why no more have followed. After all, one of the key problems that all three waves of the new towns programme were partly designed to address – how to cope with population overspill from London and other major cities – has not gone away.

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12 tests for the Housing White Paper

This is an updated version of a post originally published on January 12 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The moment is finally here but will radical plans to boost housing supply live up to their advance billing? Here are my tests.

  1. How half-baked is it?

In one very important way, ministers have already passed my first test. Publication of a White Paper seems to mark a return to an earlier era of government when policies went through consultation and scrutiny before they were enacted.

Contrast that with the way that half-baked ideas from thinktanks were turned into equally half-baked legislation in the back of a fag packet Housing and Planning Act.

Speaking of which, how much will we hear about the loose ends that still need tying up from the act? Pay to Stay may be dead in its compulsory form, and the extension of the Right to Buy delayed by another pilot, but we still don’t know what’s happening with forced sales of higher-value council houses or to the receipts they raise.

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Planting seeds

Originally published on January 3 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Two major housing announcements before most people have gone back to work sets some sort of record even by recent standards.

Late on Monday the government confirmed the go-ahead for the first of “thousands” of Starter Homes to be sold at a 20% discount to first-time buyers aged between 23 and 40. And on Monday morning, the government named 17 sites for new garden villages and garden towns. If only it were as easy to build homes as it is to put out press releases on a bank holiday.

I’ll come back to Starter Homes soon. But first off, those 17 garden towns and villages. As far as it goes, the idea is a welcome acknowledgement of the need for radical action to build more new homes.

But the emphasis on them being “locally led” only underlines the desperate need for national leadership if the response to the housing crisis is to go beyond leaving it to the market with a few extra bits tacked on around the edges.

As it is, Monday’s first government announcement of the year is eerily reminiscent of the “radical new policy shift” promised by David Cameron 12 months ago: initiatives that are promising in themselves and get media coverage but do not go remotely far enough to make any real difference.

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Hitting the target?

Originally published on November 15 on my blog for Inside Housing

On the basis of figures released today, the government is much more likely to achieve its ambition of a million new homes in this parliament than many people realise.

Total net additional housing supply was 189,950 homes in 2015/16. That means that in the first year of the five covered by the target, output was just 10,000 short of the 200,000 a year required.

As the graph shows, that total is the highest achieved since the peak of 2007/08, the last year before the impact of the financial crisis was felt. It’s also the fourth-largest annual output since this series was first published for 1991/92.

netsupply

This level of output will come as a surprise to those relying on quarterly housebuilding statistics that show 139,880 new homes completed in 2015/16, well short of what’s needed.

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Ten steps to a housing crisis

Originally posted on October 14 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

How does somewhere that was built to solve the housing shortage end up being in the middle of one?

The place in question is Peterborough in Cambridgshire but events there in the last month resonate well beyond the city. Seen admittedly from the outside, this is the UK housing crisis in ten steps.

1) Build a new town

Peterborough was designated as a new town in 1967 to accommodate population overspill from London. Four new townships were added to what was already a Cathedral city, boosting the population from 83,000 to 190,000 over the last 40 years. The key, according to the former head of the development corporation Wyndham Thomas, was the acquisition of land at existing use values with debt repaid from finance generated by increased land values.

2) Watch the population grow

Housebuilding has failed to keep pace with a rising population in the south and east of England in general. In the case of Peterborough in particular add high levels of immigration. Cities Outlook 16, the regular survey by the Centre for Cities, shows that Peterborough was the third fastest-growing city in the UK for population with an annual growth rate of 1.5% a year between 2004 and 2014. The housing stock grew by the fourth fastest rate in the country between 2013 and 2014 but the rate was 1.1%.

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