To fix the housing market, the government needs to do nothing at all

Just stop trying.

In November, planning minister Nick Boles tackled the country's housing crisis — caused, he said, by a decade-long invasion of propertyless aliens — head-on, announcing he would seek powers to build 100,000 homes a year on Green Belt land. Shortly afterwards, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, reinforced this message, warning us of the imminent danger that migrant homebuyers pose to the “national interest” – "without the demand caused by mass immigration," she said, "house prices could be ten per cent lower over a twenty year period."

The Conservative grassroots, mortified at what they apparently see as the sheer illiberality of building on the Green Belt, moved swiftly to an ostrich position to undermine the proposal.

"The notion of a housing shortage in London… is, and always has been, a myth," read Andrew Lilico's riposte. "Surpluses of dwellings over households actually increased everywhere".

It is almost impossible to be more wrong. The immigration argument has been debunked so comprehensively that, in its 2012 report on the housing shortage (pdf), the IEA casually dismisses it as an "oft-repeated non-issue". Similarly, the effort to use simple mathematics to describe a notoriously variegated and illiquid asset class ignores the fact that neither property nor its occupants are homogenous and freely exchangeable: an abundance of one- or two-bedroom flats in a given area at a range of prices, for example, is useless if the majority of demand is for family homes (pdf).

There is, in fact, a fairly robust consensus across the political spectrum that the United Kingdom is in the grip of an acute housing supply shortage with many causes, among them NIMBYism, speculation, capital flight from southern Europe, over-taxation, land use controls, and failure to implement comprehensive welfare reform. In the absence of a credible policy proposal from the Coalition, however, the left has assumed the mantle of leadership on the issue by setting itself in diametrical opposition to austerity, demanding more central government funding for affordable housing – and lots of it.

Unquestionably, the money could be put to good use. Shelter, the housing charity, predicted in 2010 that (pdf):

"cuts to housing benefit and the slashing of the affordable house building subsidy will be devastating for the housing aspirations of thousands of young people consigned to increasing costs."

Those costs are the third-highest in Europe, 40 per cent of net income for over 15 per cent of the population. Sensing the undercurrent of popular anger, Labour has promised funding for the same 100,000 homes a year as Nick Boles – except these are “affordable” ones. Unfortunately, these counterproposals only draw battle-lines for the next election. They address the question of how taxpayers should step in to reinforce the safety net, but do nothing to tell us how to rein in the cost of the safety net itself.

The key question is this: would building more “affordable housing”, either in the Green Belt or in our cities, actually end the housing crisis? In my view, probably not. Housing was a risky enough business before the recession; today, with scarce financing, high material costs, narrow profit margins, and downward pressure on public finances for the next decade at least (£), developers face additional disincentives. If anything, affordable housing prevents developers from meeting market demand while concurrently increasing their costs — and as such it has become a significant part of the supply problem.

Many English councils mandate that developers designate a certain proportion of units in any new construction as "affordable," i.e. earmarked for social tenants or a social housing provider. Taking the London borough of Newham as an example, that locality aims to provide "the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing when negotiating on (the approval of) individual private residential and mixed use schemes". By “reasonable,” however, Newham means 50 per cent of the total, with the affordable component supported mostly by government subsidies.

This has serious implications on any proposed scheme's economic viability. Without government grants, affordable housing in Newham is completely uneconomic at the 50 per cent target (pdf) and remains so even at lower targets, for example with 35 per cent or 25 per cent provision. Viability is further impaired where build cost per square metre rises (as occurs when a development is denser) or sale price per square metre falls (meaning the proposed unit would be affordable in a free market). To wit, the economic viability of housing schemes in England is low if you intend to build units that constitute ordinary working- and middle-class housing in most of the English-speaking world, because local planning policies force developers to only embark on those projects which realise relatively higher marginal returns and command a higher market price.

This is a fact of which local governments around the country are aware (pdf); Newham's viability assessment, for example, points out that "50% affordable housing is unlikely to be viable in all market conditions", and that "in some circumstances... sales values would need to increase beyond the 2007 peak for 50% affordable housing to be achievable."

But this is not 2007, and we would be mistaken to believe that the social housing crisis is separable from the supply problem in the wider private markets. British social housing policy is itself heavily reliant on private sector provision; a crisis in one begets a crisis in the other, or as put by the IEA (pdf):

If social housing in Britain is under strain – and it clearly is – it is because the housing market as a whole is under strain.

When we consider that fully 20 per cent of the nation's residential property is directly or indirectly supported by the state and virtually the entire private sector housing supply process — design, location, construction, profit margin, and post-completion tenant allocation — is regulated and made more burdensome by the state, it does not take much to see that virtually all state intervention in the UK housing market should in theory, and does in fact, constrain supply or inflate demand. Certain aspects of the problem arise from pet policies of the right; others, of the left. What they have in common is that they disincentivise new housebuilding while making existing housing more expensive at the same time, to the detriment of low- and middle-income earners, the propertyless and the young.

Neither redistributive taxation nor piecemeal tinkering are well-suited to solve this problem. An iconoclastic, no-holds-barred programme of liberalisation, however, is. Like fuel shortages in the America of the seventies or bread shortages in the USSR of the eighties, the British housing crisis is government-led. If the government is serious about solving it, the first thing it should do is get out of the way.

The Carpenters estate in Newham, London. Photograph: Getty Images

Preston Byrne is a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

Photo: Getty
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Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders no longer sounds so outlandish

Both men have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack.

Unlike many of us, Bernie Sanders never doubted Jeremy Corbyn. The week before the general election, the independent US senator from Vermont was addressing a crowd of progressive voters in Brighton during a whirlwind tour of the UK. An audience member asked him what advice he might have for the leader of the Labour Party. “I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn needs my advice,” Sanders replied. “I think he’s doing quite well.”

The week after the election, a delighted Sanders invoked Corbyn’s election performance in a New York Times op-ed. “The British elections should be a lesson for the Democratic Party,” he wrote, urging the Democrats to stop holding on to an “overly cautious, centrist ideology” and explaining how “momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers”.

Sanders and his growing movement in the United States offered more than mere rhetorical support for Corbyn.

With the help of former members of the senator’s presidential campaign team, Momentum – the grass-roots organisation set up to support and defend Corbyn in 2015 – ran 33 training sessions across the UK, preparing thousands of Labour activists.

Momentum’s national organiser Emma Rees says that the Sanders people made a “significant contribution” to the Labour campaign with their emphasis “on having empathetic conversations that focused on the issues the voter cared about, and actually trying to persuade voters on the doorstep rather than just collecting data”.

“In the final stage, I recruited a bunch of former Bernie volunteers from around [the United States] to . . . help get out a last [get out the vote] texting assignment,” recalls Claire Sandberg, who was the digital organising director for Sanders and spent the 2017 election campaign working with Momentum in the UK. “It was an amazing thing to see them volunteering . . . while we were all asleep the night before election day.”

Is it really surprising that Sanders supporters, thousands of miles away, would want to volunteer for Corbyn? Both men are mavericks; both have a certain authenticity and unpretentiousness that their rivals lack; both, in the words of Emma Rees, “have inspired tens of thousands of people to participate in the political process and to realise their collective power” and they want “to transform society in the interests of ordinary people”. Perhaps above all else, both men have proved that left populism can win millions of votes.

According to the latest polls, if another election were held in the UK tomorrow, Corbyn would be the winner. Sanders, however, has a much higher mountain to climb in the US and faces at least three obstacles that the “British Bernie” does not.

First, Sanders leads a growing grass-roots movement but does not have the support of a party machine and infrastructure.

Corbyn may have been a backbench rebel who voted against his party whip more than 500 times before becoming party leader, but he is a lifelong Labour member.

Sanders, on the other hand, is the longest-serving independent politician in US congressional history. He declared himself a Democrat in 2015 only in order to seek the party’s presidential nomination and promptly declared himself an independent again after he was defeated by Hillary Clinton last summer.

Such behaviour has allowed establishment Democrats to portray him (wrongly) as an opportunist, an interloper who is using the Democratic Party as a vehicle for his own benefit in a country where third-party candidacies cannot succeed.

Second, Sanders has to confront an even more hostile and sceptical media than Corbyn must. Under US law, Fox News is under no obligation to be “fair and balanced” towards Sanders – nor is CNN, for that matter.

Thanks to the UK rules on broadcaster impartiality, however, Corbyn was “able to speak directly to the voters who still get their news from TV instead of the internet”, Sandberg notes. “In contrast, Bernie was completely and totally shut out by broadcast media in the US, which considered his campaign totally irrelevant.”

Third, Sanders failed to connect with minority groups, and especially with African Americans, whereas black and Asian British voters flocked to Corbyn – a veteran campaigner for the anti-racism movement.

Two out of every three ethnic-minority voters voted Labour on 8 June. “Bernie would’ve won [the Democratic nomination] if he’d had a message that resonated with 50 per cent – just 50 per cent – of black voters, because Hillary got upwards of 90 per cent in many states,” the activist and journalist Naomi Klein, who is a supporter of both Sanders and Corbyn, told me in a recent interview for my al-Jazeera English show, UpFront, which will air later this month.

Nevertheless, she is confident that Sanders can learn lessons from his own campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination, and “build a winning coalition” next time which ties together the narratives of financial, racial and gender inequality.

Just as it was a mistake to write off Jeremy Corbyn, it would be wrong to dismiss Bernie Sanders.

Despite media bias, and even though he doesn’t have a party machine behind him, Sanders today is still the most popular politician in the United States. And so this may be only the beginning of a new, transatlantic partnership between the two self-declared socialists. Those of us on the left who grew up watching Reagan and Thatcher, then Clinton and Blair, then Bush and Blair, may wish to pinch ourselves to check we’re not dreaming.

“I think by 2021,” Sandberg says, “we may see Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn sitting down with President Bernie Sanders.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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