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.

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times