Falling short

What do the final housebuilding figures for England before the election have to say about the deficit and the debt – in new homes?

Needless to say, ministers have greeted them with their usual mix of spin and agility in finding the measure that looks best in PR terms. So housing minister Brandon Lewis says ‘housebuilding continues to climb’ on the basis that housing starts in 2014 were 10 per cent up on a year ago. That may be but starts have been falling for the last two quarters: October to December 2014 was down 10 per cent on the previous quarter and 8 per cent on a year ago, suggesting perhaps that the recovery sparked by Help to Buy is petering out.

Lewis also claims that ‘overall 700,000 new homes have been delivered since the end of 2009’ without any acknowledgment that he is talking about completely different figures – additions to the council tax register – or that he has to borrow six months of the last Labour government to come up with the number.

Starts may indicate current activity but you can’t live in a start and completions are a more reliable measure of housebuilding progress. Curiously, Lewis does not mention these even though the news is actually not bad for the government: October to December completions were up 1 per cent on the previous quarter and 8 per cent on a year ago; and the 118,830 new homes built in 2014 represented an 8 per cent increase on 2013.

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Housing: where’s the plan?

A new book by the economist whose work first established the 250,000 homes a year benchmark has to be worth reading – especially when she’s not convinced it’s possible anymore.

Kate Barker’s seminal report on housing for the Blair government nailed the idea that the UK and especially England need to build houses at a much faster rate. A decade, and a separate study of planning, later and it still the ultimate source for targets of 200,000, 250,000 and even 300,000 homes a year to cope with demand and make up for the shortfall.

Now she’s back with Housing: Where’s the Plan, a short book setting out the housing challenge and potential solutions to it. With the new homes deficit rising by the year, she starts with a sober assessment of the possibilities:

‘To create a fairer and less harmful housing market, a combination of strong central direction about housing supply and unpopular taxation changes would be required. But politicians find it hard to grasp these nettles: there is far too much short-term pain and the gain will go to their successors. It is easier for them to carry on with somewhat ineffective knee-jerk and populist help for first-time buyers.’

While a perfect market may not be possible the book suggests ‘criteria for what a better housing market might look like’. However, she injects a note of caution from the outset:

‘I have become less convinced that it will be possible to meet demand in much of southern England, given the strength of local opposition in many places. So building more housing will not be the only answer, we also need to ameliorate the consequences of demand continuing to exceed the available supply.’

In less than 100 pages, the book covers an immense amount of ground including the sort of outcomes we want, post-war housing and planning policy, the housing market and the wider economy, market risks and taxation. Read the rest of this entry »