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

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.