Restrictive planning laws have caused the UK’s housing cost explosion

No comparable country has built so few houses over the last 30 years.

Runaway housing costs have become one of the most pressing issues for low-income households in the UK. House prices are now two-and-a-half-times higher in real terms than they were in the mid-1970s, and rent levels have followed closely. What is more worrying than the level of prices or rents per se are measures of affordability, which look even bleaker. Historically, the ratio of average house prices to average incomes, both collected at the local level, has rarely exceeded a value of three. This meant that an average family could afford an average-priced house with three gross annual salaries. In a growing economy, we would expect this ratio to gradually fall over time, but the opposite occurred: It has risen to over five in most UK regions.

No other developed country except Australia has experienced such an extreme and sustained increase in housing costs. Spain, Ireland and the US have had their housing market bubbles, but they were transitory: Since 2008, real-term house prices there have almost returned to pre-bubble levels. Not so in the UK, where they have only fallen back to the levels recorded just before the peak.

High housing costs are not just decreasing living standards directly, but create numerous adverse knock-on effects. Most obviously, they raise the price of nearly every good or service that requires retail and/or office space, since the commercial rent is partially passed on to consumers. The cost of a standard food basket in the UK, for example, is 20 per cent higher than in France and 30 per cent higher than in Ireland. Another knock-on effect is the explosion in Housing Benefit (HB) payments. One in five households is now reliant on HB, which is not just a fiscal problem – the HB bill has doubled in real terms over the past two decades – but also erodes work incentives, due to the high withdrawal rate.

But the worst aspect is that the explosion in housing costs, and everything that flowed from it, was completely unnecessary. It could have been entirely avoided. The empirical evidence from around the world shows that temporary fluctuations aside, housing costs are largely determined by the severity of planning restrictions. This remains true even when controlling for a wide range of other factors, like population density, natural (as opposed to regulatory) obstacles, or the extent to which an area is built-up already.

The empirical literature merely confirms what common sense tells us. There are a variety of other alleged cost drivers that are frequently cited, but the problem with each of them is that the same factors are present in dozens of other countries, which have not experienced a housing cost explosion. Yes, the South East and the West Midlands are fairly densely populated, but no more so than a number of Swiss cantons, German Länder and Dutch provinces. Yes, the social housing stock has declined, but it still remains one of the largest in the developed world. Yes, there are empty and underused properties, but comparatively few by international standards. There is only one figure on which the UK really does stand out from its neighbours, and that is the number of newly completed dwellings (relative to population size) over the past thirty years. No comparable country has quelled housing development with such rigour for so long.

Housing development is not a threat to the attractive parts of the countryside, unless you assign that label to every muddy field and every stubbly patch of grass, as the anti-development Nimby lobby does. Only one tenth of the English surface area is developed at all, and within that tenth, the single biggest category is domestic gardens. There is plenty of room for development without sacrificing areas of natural beauty. It is a matter of confronting vested interests, which, unfortunately, the present coalition is not particularly good at.

Kristian is the author of Abundance of land, shortage of housing, a new report from the IEA.

A house being built near Bristol. Photograph: Getty Images

Kristian Niemietz joined the IEA in 2008 as Poverty Research Fellow.

Kristian is currently a PhD student in Public Policy at King's College London, where he also teaches economics. He is the author of the recent IEA Discussion Paper on planning reform, Abundance of Land, Shortage of Housing.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide