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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Should the UK get militarily involved in Syria?

There is a ceasefire, in name only, agreed by all parties, including Russia.  But it is not enforced 

The foreign secretary Boris Johnson remarked on Thursday that the "UK would find it very difficult to refuse a US request to strike Syrian regime targets in response to another use of WMD". Hopefully, is an indication, at last, in a change in British policy towards Syria. 

After six years of fighting, over 500,000 dead, four million refugees, 11 million internally displaced people, and most of the country raised to the ground, it is clear to most that our policy of acquiescence, along with many others, is not working. Had we intervened at the beginning the crisis, the situation could not possibly have been worse. 

Johnson's comments caused controversy. But in fact, too many MPs in Westminster seem inward-looking, inexperienced and unworldly. Their fear of repeating the mistakes of Iraq has paralysed their thoughts and actions. This I find most frustrating. There are WMD in Syria and Assad is prepared to use them and against his own people. Our inactivity has in no small measure fuelled the rise of Isis, which as we now know is a direct threat to those MPs in Westminster and the country as a whole. Turn the other cheek to both Isis and Assad, and we should expect it well and truly slapped, again and again.

It is right and proper, as the closest ally of the US and a member of the UN Security Council that we take our responsibilities to protect the innocent seriously, wherever they are in the world. The UK must reinforce the red line, and taboo of using WMD to the absolute degree. Some in Westminster would have our nuclear deterrent and military confined to the barracks, and would avoid confrontation at every opportunity, in the hope that the worlds’ despots, dictators and terrorist will ignore us. This naivety could lead to the terminal decline of the UK as a global honest broker, our marginalisation on the world stage and an easy target for those who would do us harm.

But it is not direct military action by the UK against Assad that will resolve the crisis in Syria. The Geneva Process, which even the Russians are a part of, provides the framework for a political and democratic solution. However, without UN military support it has virtually no hope of success.

The first and overriding requirement in Syria is a ceasefire. There is one, in name only, agreed by all parties, including Russia, in Astana earlier this year.  But it is not enforced and never will be without the UN monitoring it. Just this month alone, the regime and Russian jets have attacked and destroyed seven hospitals run by the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) in Idlib Province.

The UN must police this ceasefire with monitors and peacekeepers. I hope Mr Johnson, who also previously offered British troops to this task, will now, after his comments on Thursday be good to his word. The second requirement for peace is Safe Zones. Millions of civilians are without the bare essentials in life and are besieged by the warring factions. UN military personnel are required to protect these people, and to enable the millions of tonnes of aid, which sits gathering dust in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to get to where it should be, and to support reconstruction of the shattered infrastructure.

With the bare essentials of a ceasefire and safe zones in place, monitored and protected by the UN, there is just a fighting chance that the Geneva Process can progress.  It is Russian President Vladimir Putin who holds all the cards, and I cannot believe that the combined influence of the other members of the UN Security Council, or at least the US, UK and France, that together vastly outcompete his deterrent, cannot persuade him to come to the negotiating table. This could mean relaxing sanctions against Russia and allowing its forces a naval and air base in the Mediterranean. If this is viewed as "humble pie", it might be worth eating.

So I for one welcome the foreign secretary’s comments. Israel has shown this week that it will strike targets at will in Assad’s heartland and against his Allies with impunity, to protect its people. Russia, Syria and Iran do not lift a finger or comment in the face of these attacks, knowing that Israel has no qualms at using all its military capabilities to protect itself. 

Sometimes you just have to use force when all other options are exhausted. It is now time for the UN to use its collective military capability to force the peace in Syria. I hope the UK is in the vanguard of this battle.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is a chemical weapons expert who has visited Syria many times during the war. He is the director of Doctors Under Fire and an adviser to UOSSM.

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