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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.