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

Getty Images.
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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.