Housing stagnation is hardly a surprise

We need to change our housing policy to improve the quality and quantity of what is built.

The release of the 2011 figures showing stagnation in housing construction is unsurprising. Since the mid-Nineties, house prices have tripled but the number of new homes being built has fallen. This is seriously dysfunctional and is primarily due to a series of overlapping policy failures.

Firstly, there is our planning system. We release too little land for new homes: the amount of homes we built in the 2000s was the fewest since the war, and less than half of what we built in the 1960s. We preserve giant fields of wheat or low grade farmland, yet only 10 per cent of England is built on. We destroy gardens and build tiny homes, and then complain that this country is too cramped.

Our planning system also leads to poor quality housing, creating understandable NIMBYism. The current plan-led system of allocating land and housing has reams of quality control dictating what new development must look like. It fails. Almost everyone would rather live in a building built before our 1947 Town and Country Planning Act than after it. We have created a system where once developers have paid for land and made a payment to the council to obtain planning permission (entitled Section 106), they are probably out of pocket to the tune of £50,000 to £100,000. On top of that, people are so desperate for a home you can put up almost anything and make a profit. And instead of homes being what people want, they must satisfy council planners.

Allied to planning is the bubble created by our banking and finance system. By the peak of the bubble in 2007 around 75 per cent of all bank lending was going to property, almost all speculation. The only parts of the world that didn't see a property bubble were outside the euro and released enough land to keep housing costs close to construction (largely in the Southern US)." Banks funded a self-perpetuating bubble on the back of inelastic land supply.

Currently, our planning system allows developers to make abnormally high profits, which they choose over better homes or increased supply. Mortgage lending is up, while business lending falls. Land is still too expensive. Meanwhile nearly 10 per cent of mortgages are in forebearance even with interest rates at 0 per cent -- but everyone pretends the show must (and can) go on. We are repeating past mistakes.

In the last couple of years Policy Exchange has argued for a series of changes to accelerate the provision of new housing, from converting derelict office and retail space to allowing new large-scale suburbs and new Garden Cities supported by local people. We support a move away from the top down council-led planning system. Instead, we propose that local people can block development if 50 per cent vote against it. We also propose compensation for green field development along with parks and more green spaces attached to new development. We need fewer 500-page, incomprehensible council plans and more land released for attractive development with attractive green space attached.

This could be a key plank of the growth strategy that the government urgently needs; particularly as it would see construction accelerate most around the future growth hubs like Oxford, Cambridge, Leeds, York and London. We pretend we are desperate for growth but refuse to allow it where business needs it -- accelerating the shift of economic power to Asia.

Nothing that the government has proposed so far will shift the essential fundamentals. Unless the relevant Ministers, Greg Clark and Grant Shapps, are preparing models that will change things (that won't blow up when interest rates normalise), we can expect this situation to continue.

Alex Morton is a senior research fellow at Policy Exchange

 

Alex Morton is a senior research fellow at Policy Exchange

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.