Why decades of failed housing policy has held our cities back

With 100,000 stalled sites in London alone, housebuilding needs more help.

After decades of failed housing policy, the UK is now facing a housing crisis. Currently, the UK is building around 100,000 homes fewer than is required to keep pace with demand each year which is one of the reasons we are experiencing high house prices. In fact, since 1959, the UK has seen a real term increase in house prices of 300 per cent; if the price of a dozen eggs had increased as quickly they would cost just under £19 today.

Current government forecasts suggest we need to build 232,000 houses per year but the problem is that the UK has only done this once in the last 30 years. The UK’s housing shortage must be addressed as a priority to unlock valuably needed economic growth and to improve the lives of people across the country. That’s why this year, Centre for Cities has focused on how to put place back into housing policy through our annual health check of UK cities, Cities Outlook 2013, sponsored by the Local Government Association.

One of the main problems is that housing policy is set on a national level, and house building incentives are applied too widely and do not take into account the specific housing needs of each city. Some cities need new homes while other cities have plenty of vacant housing stock but need funds to retrofit or reconfigure existing development. Cities need the freedoms and flexibilities to make decisions about how best to meet the particular needs of their residents.

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Cities such as Cambridge, London and Oxford, for example, are the most unaffordable places to become a homeowner in the country, while also experiencing relatively low vacancy rates. Restricting housing in high performing cities such as these will hurt economic performance as current residents can’t afford to buy, new people can’t come to live and work, and employers are restricted in personnel. In these places, policy should focus on increasing housebuilding.

In cities such as Burnley and Hull, where housing is most affordable but vacancy rates are relatively high, a focus on the supply of housing (except where there is a clear shortage of a certain type of housing) may not help the local economy. In fact it could have the reverse effect – the supply of housing could put a downward pressure on house prices which would hurt current home owners. In these places, policies to deal with vacancy and quality of housing stock are likely to be more beneficial as they can improve the quality of life of local residents, help make areas more attractive to businesses and potentially generate jobs in the form of retrofitting and refurbishment.

Boosting housing supply requires short term and long term policies. In the short run, there is the potential to provide quick boosts to the housing market which would also increase employment and improve economic performance. There are around 400,000 units on stalled sites across England and over 118,000 of these units are found in the ten most unaffordable cities. Initially prioritising these through existing policies, such as Get Britain Building, could provide significant economic benefits in the short term. The construction of 100,000 new houses could support around 150,000 jobs (of which 90,000 are in low skilled positions) as well as providing a boost to the national economy of around 1 per cent.

Top 10 by affordability

  City Affordability ratio (2012) Vacancy rate (% of stock) Stalled sites
1 Oxford 14.7 2.30% 385
2 London 13.6 2.30% 101745
3 Cambridge 11.7 1.00% 2188
4 Brighton 11.1 2.60% 1555
5 Bournemouth 10.9 2.50% 1320
6 Aldershot 10.0 2.70% 1526
7 Crawley 9.5 1.60% 1067
8 Reading 9.3 1.80% 3136
9 Bristol 9.0 2.40% 5346
10 Worthing 8.8 1.80% 314

In the long term, issues such as opening up the house building industry, incentivising developers to use the land they currently have permission to build on and reforming the planning process will be important to increasing overall housing supply. Places should also be empowered to devise their own planning policies including, for example, the use of greenbelt land.

It will take time to reverse the consequences of decades of failed housing policy. However, the correct short term policy focus can bring quick wins for people, cities and the economy, while a focus on greater devolution of power and responsibilities to cities could help resolve the UK's housing crisis over the long term, and deliver sustained benefits to the national economy.

Cities Outlook 2013, the flagship annual publication by the Centre for Cities, sponsored by the LGA is published today. Find out more details.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alexandra Jones is the director of the Centre for Cities

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser