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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.