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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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