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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle