All posts tagged: housebuilding
At around midnight on the evening of May 3rd 1979 I watched Margaret Thatcher’s cavalcade sweep past the end of my road in north London. She was on the way back to the count in her Finchley constituency. Just a few months earlier I had started my first job in housing, for Camden’s housing department. Little did I realise it at the time, but her election was to form the backdrop to my entire life in housing.
That winter of 78/79 in London was awful. It felt like a war zone, with rubbish piling up in the streets. Strikes gripped the divided nation. In some cities the dead were left unburied. Most people felt that it “couldn’t go on like this” so there was a real appetite for change. They say you should be careful what you wish for!
Younger readers may find it hard to understand the extent to which 1979 was a watershed in post-war politics. Since 1945 there had been a broad consensus on housing policy. Attlee, Churchill, Macmillan, Wilson and Heath had all broadly agreed that people could and should aspire to home ownership but that this would be part of a broad church of housing provision, underpinned by a regulated private rented sector and a strong council sector charging low rents. In 1953, Harold Macmillan the Conservative Housing Minister, built almost 200,000 council houses in England. As Prime Minister in 1957 he built 135,000. Harold Wilson built 154,000 council houses in 1967. Both sides of the House agreed that council housing was a good thing. But after 1979 this changed forever.
During the seventies Camden had been building 3,000 homes a year under the legendary housing director William Barnes. It had a huge architects’ department designing modernistic schemes such as the Alexandra Estate or Branch Hill. There was a sense of optimism, a feeling that we were creating the socialist nirvana that had been promised by the post-war settlement. But with Thatcher’s election these new build schemes started to dry up. During the seventies Camden had also bought up whole streets of Georgian and Victorian terraces for redevelopment or renewal. These too were put on hold. They were squatted or passed to short-life groups. One of my early jobs was managing this portfolio of over a thousand homes, working with short-life groups like West Hampstead Housing Association (now part of Genesis) or Short-Life Community Housing (now defunct). Post-Thatcher, many of these properties were left untouched for decades. Some of them, like the notorious Hillview estate, became dens of crime and prostitution.
Within a couple of years of Thatcher’s election London began to change. Wine bars and brash yuppies started to appear. The New Romantics replaced the punks. During the course of the decade waiting lists grew and the use of bed and breakfast soared. The council itself was torn apart by the battles over rate capping.
In discussing Margaret Thatcher’s housing legacy it is important to remember that she spent part of 1974 as Shadow Environment Minister, which included the housing brief. She understood the key issues as this, very dated, party political broadcast makes clear. She also knew that housing offered the opportunity to create the property owning democracy that she and her advisers dreamed of. It would remove people from the “tyranny” of the state, and turn them into good conservative voters in the process. “Every man and woman a capitalist.”
So what did she achieve? I think her housing legacy has five fundamental elements.
First, she ended the mass council house building that had characterised the post-war years. In 1979 councils in England built 75,000 homes. By 1990 this had fallen to 14,000, a gap that has never been replaced by housing association provision.
Secondly, she deregulated the private rented sector and put in place the conditions for the growth of the PRS that continue to the present day.
Thirdly, she introduced private finance into the housing association sector, leading to lower grants, less secure tenancies and higher rents.
Fourthly, she introduced the right to buy, which fundamentally changed the balance of tenures forever. In 1979, 29 percent of all homes in England were owned by councils and housing associations. By 2011 this had dropped to 17 percent. It was the greatest transfer of assets from the state to the individual in any era and generated more revenue for the Treasury than all other privatisations put together.
Finally, she engineered the switch of public subsidy from bricks and mortar to individuals, leading to huge increases in both council and housing association rents. As Sir George Young, the then housing minister, famously remarked in 1991, “housing benefit will take the strain”. It certainly has, soaring to £23 billion by 2013. (I think the history books will judge this to be one of the most stupid policies of any government in any period.)
In 1980 the typical rent for a one bed flat in Camden was £10 a week, the equivalent of about £36 in today’s money. The actual figure today would be around £115. In the House of Commons on the 16th December 1981 Gerald Kaufman condemned the government “for more doubling council house rents since coming to power. When the Government came to office in May 1979, the average council house rent stood at £6.40 a week. Two years later, by April this year, that rent had risen to £11.39 - an increase of 78 per cent.”
But we need to be quite clear. None of these fundamental shifts in policy that were put in place under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership have been undone by subsequent administrations. Our present housing system is the creature of her reforms.
And yet. The details of her housing record are not quite as straightforward as this. It is true that Thatcher thought there was something wrong with anyone who did not aspire to own their own home and the sale of council houses is, rightly, seen as her most enduring housing policy. But, as Jules Birch has pointed out, her approach to council sales was more nuanced than the subsequent mythology and the same is true of other aspects of her approach. She proceeded with more caution than you would have expected, and you have to remember that her early cabinets were dominated by “wets” – men who believed in the post war consensus. In fact, many more social dwellings were built under Thatcher than under Blair and Brown. 440,680 were built in England in the decade from 1980 to 1989 compared to 187,450 between 2000 and 2009. Admittedly, some of this was due to a slow winding-down of Labour’s plans, but these are interesting statistics, nonetheless. Similarly, the de-regulation of the private sector did not come until almost a decade after her election, in 1988, and the first transfer of council stock (Chiltern Hundreds) was also in 1988, something that seemed alien and unbelievable to me at the time. In fact, her comment about “no such thing as society” is also more nuanced when you read it carefully. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that she was not actually a conservative at all. After all, it was the Tory grandees who shafted her at the end, not the electorate. She was, in truth, an extreme free market liberal.
But in the final analysis Margaret Thatcher’s housing legacy is quite simple. She swept away the post war consensus, and it has never been restored. In that sense, we are all Thatcher’s children, from the family struggling to pay an “affordable” rent of £180 a week to the housing association chief executive on a six-figure salary. There has been no more important figure in housing in my lifetime.
The budget promised little on housing and delivered less. That may sound pessimistic given George Osborne’s “dramatic intervention” in the housing market but the truth is that his announcement on Help to Buy, even though the figures are impressive, will do little to stimulate housebuilding and is likely to cause house price inflation, making things even worse for those who are priced out of the market.
The £5.4 billion Help to Buy scheme, designed to “tackle long-term problems in the housing market” has two elements. First, an equity loan scheme amounting to £3.5 billion for newbuild only. This allows first time and other buyers to put up a 5 percent deposit and then receive a 20 percent government equity loan so they only have to find a 75 percent mortgage. The equity loan is repaid when the property is sold. It is for houses valued up to £600,000 and is available from April 1st this year and will run for 3 years. The second element is a mortgage guarantee scheme starting next year, whereby buyers find a 5 percent deposit and the government guarantees the remaining 95 percent mortgage. This applies to newbuild and existing properties and the government will guarantee mortgages up to (an impressive) £130 billion. By my calculations £130 billion would cover around half a million mortgages annually, assuming loans at 95 percent of average UK house prices, which has the potential to capture a significant proportion of the existing mortage market as reported by the CML. But presumably this initiative will be limited if there are significant numbers of mortgage defaults?
But what will be the impact be in practice? The stock of existing homes is fixed, so pumping huge sums of money into the mortgage market will just push up prices. For newbuild, it’s been stated again and again on Inside Housing that the housebuilding industry is a virtual cartel and that housing supply is inelastic to demand so pushing more money at housebuilders will not make them build more; instead, they will just carry on as before, working their way slowly through their landbanks and keeping their margins high. This looks like a victory for the housebuilders. As Nick Pearce at the IPPR points out, house prices are now almost back to their 2008 levels, despite years of mortgage famine and recession. The danger is that Osborne’s initiatives, by boosting demand without any corresponding increase in supply, will just create yet another housing bubble. History repeating itself as tragedy.
The only two stimuli that would have led to a genuine increase in supply without inflating house prices were, firstly significant funding for public construction on public land and secondly, an announcement of a major programme of new towns or urban extensions, led by the public sector, on greenfield sites.
In terms of affordable housing, Osborne referred to an additional 15,000 new affordable homes up to 2015, but this will make little impact on waiting lists and represents just 6 percent of the 250,000 we need to build each year. His plans to re-invigorate the right to buy (again) by easing administration and raising the London discount to £100,000 will just take stock out of the public sector and will do little for those on waiting lists. One small ray of sunshine in the Budget Book is that the government is set to announce some certainty about social rents post 2015: “…at the 2015- 16 Spending Round the Government will… set out a social rental policy that gives social landlords certainty until 2025.” My guess is that this will mean target rents set at 80 percent of market rents.
Overall, a very disappointing budget for housing.
So, another year over and a new one just begun. The key events of 2012 have been admirably summed up by Jules Birch in his diptych of blogs, but I get the feeling that 2013 will be a different animal altogether. For me, the past eighteen months have been like the period from September 1939 to May 1940, between the fall of Poland to the fall of France – the Phoney War. There has been plenty of sabre rattling but the actual impacts of change have been relatively slight and the welfare bill is still going up. This year will be different, with many of the coalition’s reforms starting to bite.
This is my take on some of the key areas to look out for during 2013:
- The bedroom tax starts in April. Most of the housing providers I talk to know exactly who is affected but no one can tell you how it will unfold. Most tenants appear to be resigned to staying put and paying the extra rent from their own resources. But will we end up with a growing cohort of tenants who want to move, can’t move, won’t or can’t pay the rent and can’t be evicted? Only time will tell, but we should start to know the answers by late summer.
- The Universal Credit pathfinders kick off in April and the first new claims will start nationwide in October. Again, all the housing providers I talk to have plans in place but no one really know how it will unravel. We should be a little clearer by the autumn, but my hunch is that the implementation of Universal Credit will be further delayed, mainly due to ongoing IT issues, as suggested by this story.
- We should start to understand the impact of homeless people being placed in the private sector. Will local authorities be able to source enough decent private lets or will we have a growing rash of stories about homeless people being exported to the north? Will the new policy just set up a revolving door where we trap people in poverty on high private sector rents and see the same faces coming back again and again? Rents in the private rented sector are likely to increase and more cases of rogue landlords and squalid conditions will be uncovered. Rising PRS rents will also cause the housing benefit bill to increase. The picture should be clearer by the early summer.
- Most future completions in the social rented sector will be under the affordable rents’ programme with rents set at up to 80% of market rents. The average affordable rent in London is £180. Most of the providers I speak to don’t have a cunning strategy in place for letting these properties, other than through existing allocation schemes (as set out in HCA guidance). Does this mean that we end up trapping thousands of households in poverty, unable to work and unable to pay the high rents? Again, the outcome of this programme will become clearer during 2013.
- The localised Council tax benefit scheme kicks off in April, with many working age claimants required to pay up to £10 per week from their existing income to cover the 10 percent cut in national funding. This could be the hidden assassin, a Poll Tax mark two according to some commentators. By the early summer we will know how this is panning out.
- In May CLG will release house-building figures for the last quarter of the year. My hunch is that completions for 2012/13 will fall below the totemic figure of 100,000 and there will be a furious debate about government incompetence. The evidence from local planning suggests that house-building targets have been considerably scaled down from the now-abolished regional targets, despite my initial optimism that the new National Planning Policy Framework would stimulate growth. It hasn’t, and the consequences of allowing Nimbys to dominate the agenda will be plain for all to see by the early summer.
- In the wider housing market you can take your choice of a range of predictions about future house prices, but with interest rates at historic lows, households increasing, mortgage lending easing and a lack of supply I think we can expect to see some increases in prices during 2013.
The combined outcome of all these changes could make housing a top story during 2013 and unleash a wave of public anger about the failure of housing policy. Or not, as the case may be! All the evidence suggests that the housing situation for millions of people will only get worse during 2013, yet our sector seems curiously passive in the face of the growing crisis. Perhaps 2013 will also be the year that we get our act together and campaign more widely and more effectively for a better housing settlement. Don’t hold your breath.
Most people accept that our housing market is bust. House prices remain stubbornly high even though a whole generation can’t afford to buy. The planning system won’t deliver the homes we need, and builders won’t build them even if it did. The private rented sector is growing yet rents are still rising and in many parts of the country it costs more to rent than to buy. Bed and breakfast is booming. Every year, the government invests around £1 billion on new “affordable” housing, yet spends £23 billion on propping up high rents through the housing benefit system. It’s a crazy world.
But it’s important to remember that this dysfunctional housing market does not just create personal misery, it also has damaging economic consequences.
A recent piece of research by Shelter shows that if private rents had risen only at the same rate as general inflation since 2001 private tenants would now have an additional £8 billion in their pockets, that’s an astonishing £2,000 per household each year. Imagine what an impact that extra income could have on the economy.
But it strikes me that the Shelter research could also be applied to the owner occupied sector. House prices have increased at roughly four times the rate of general inflation over the past thirty years. That means bigger mortgages, which means less disposable income for home-owners. As a result, our housing costs are the third highest in Europe. I haven’t been able to source any figures on how this impacts on household incomes, but my back of an envelope calculations go as follows: the LSE calculates that rents would have risen by only 22% if they had followed CPI since 2001 compared to an actual increase of 76%. If we apply the same ratios to the 11 million home-owners with mortgages, paying an average of £500 a month, (that’s £66 billion a year), then homeowners would have an extra £19.5 billion in their pockets every year if house prices had increased in line with CPI. That’s £1,770 for each household. (Of course interest rates are at an historically low level and a like-for- like comparison is difficult, but I think my figures are in the right ball-park, unless anyone out there is prepared to challenge them?)
So that means private renters and owners have effectively been robbed of a staggering £27.5 billion per annum as a result of inflation-busting house prices and rents. That’s roughly half of the entire annual spend on education. Imagine if that money was available for spending by households in the UK economy instead of being poured into the pockets of landlords and mortgage companies, and then swallowed up by the the sub-prime debt mountain. Is it any wonder that our economy is suffering from a lack of demand? And of course, high rents also add to the cost of goods in the shops, as they increase the overheads of all traders.
Compare and contrast this to Germany where house prices have fallen by ten percent in real terms over the past thirty years and where housing costs are significantly lower, due primarily to their willingness to release sufficient land to keep housing markets in balance, to restrict the amount of mortgage credit and to regulate the private rented sector making it an attractive alternative for potential home-owners. As a result, Germans enjoy stable housing rents and house prices and some of the highest standards of living in Europe. They can invest their surplus cash in savings, cars, holidays and other consumer products that benefit the economy.
The clear message from this is; yes housebuilding can provide a major economic stimulus, but it is low rents and low house prices relative to incomes that will create the greatest economic benefits in the long term. David Cameron’s attack on the NIMBYs this week was a welcome development but we still have miles to go before we reap the benefits of a balanced housing market and restore the pounds missing from our pockets.
I spent a few days in Manchester last week at the CIH Conference.
To begin with, I think the new venue is excellent, the programme was stimulating and the vibe was good. Thousands of intelligent conversations took place, (followed by thousands of semi-intelligent conversations as the nights wore on.) Lord Freud and Grant Shapps glided smoothly through their sessions with barely a ripple of impoliteness from the not-so-cheap seats (apart from a couple of impertinent questions that were either ignored or rebuffed).
On day one, the latest housebuilding figures were released, suggesting that England could build fewer than 100,000 new homes this year, the lowest ever in peacetime. So everyone left Manchester in agreement that the housing crisis was deepening, that housebuilding was the key to economic stimulus and that we need we need to find new models of funding.
So far so good. But if you searched through the national press at the end of the week you would struggle to find any mention of Manchester and the serious issues that had been raised at conference. Issues that are fundamental to the health and wellbeing of the nation. In fact, apart from the JRF report on housing options for young people and the excellent Hannah Fearn in The Guardian, the conference, and housing in general, was largely ignored. For the average man or woman in the street the thousands of people who assembled in Manchester could have spent their time grouse shooting on the nearby moors and they would be little the wiser.
Does this matter? Hannah Fearn thinks that those who shape policy read The Guardian so our sector’s lack of national coverage is not a big deal. I beg to differ. To start with, if policy shapers are reading The Guardian then it has hardly done us much good of late! But politicians respond to the public mood. They may get bagfuls of desperate people in their surgeries with housing problems, but unless the well-housed start to lobby them about the need to invest in housing then we stand little chance of making an effective case.
To compare and contrast, look at the impact that the National Trust had during the NPPF debate. They mobilised their 4 million members in a wholly impressive way. Hundreds of tweets went out each day, a quarter of a million signed their petition, the Daily Telegraph ran its spurious “Hands off Our Land” campaign, their Director General was invited to Number 10. Their misleading message that the countryside was about to be concreted over entered the public consciousness, and the government was rattled. By contrast, the housing sector was virtually silent throughout the campaign, even though the outcome had the potential to change the shape of our housing system for a generation. We really need to do better.
Now we may not have 4 million members but we do have 4 million tenants and we could and should be doing more to mobilise them in favour of housing investment. Former Housing Minister John Healy said that he had never come across a more introverted sector than housing. He is right. During her double act with Grant Shapps, Grainia Long, the new Chief Executive of the CIH, talked about setting the housing minister his annual objectives. Well if I could set one objective for Grainia it would be this: your media operation needs a massive shake up. We need a Max Clifford for the housing sector, someone who can make housing stories interesting and understandable and help to shift pubic opinion about the scale of the crisis. We also need to link up more effectively with others in the wider housing sector, including groups like PricedOutUK, who aim to speak on behalf of a generation that cannot afford to buy. We also need to be less polite. The National Trust was extremely robust in the way it dealt with ministers, but their campaign was effective. To be frank, cuddling up to successive housing ministers simply has not worked. It’s time for a re-think.
“King blames Queen for stifling Growth” was the rather brilliant headline on the front page of the Independent’s i paper a couple of week’s ago when Mervyn King claimed that this long Jubilee weekend would harm the economy.
I’m sure Her Majesty is not personally to blame for the festivities and would rather be putting her feet up at Windsor Castle, but sixty years of stonewalling inscrutability is quite an achievement.
So how do we assess the past sixty years on the housing front? Well, like the curate’s egg, it’s been good in parts. Housing conditions have improved immeasurably. Almost two in three households had no hot water supply after the war and most people have seen a dramatic improvement in their living conditions. House prices have increased 86 times, from an average price of £1,891 in 1952 to £162,722 now. In 1952 only a third of housing was owner occupied, now it’s two thirds. 50 percent rented privately, compared to 17 percent now. Yet affordability has worsened and a whole generation is now being denied the right to buy or rent a home of their own at a price they can afford. The last sixty years have also seen four boom-and-bust periods in the housing market, a level of volatility that has caused immense damage to our economy and to people’s lives.
But it is in housebuilding that we have seen the greatest changes, with a slow and stuttering decline in production over the second half of the Elizabethan period. It really has been a reign of two halves with nearly 8 million homes being built in England in her first thirty years compared to only 4.7 million during the subsequent period. In 1952 in England we built 197,000 homes. That’s nearly twice as many as now, and 84% of them were council houses, but the rest of the decade was even more impressive. Between 1951 and 1960 2.4 million homes were built in England and 54 percent were council homes. In the sixties we did even better with a total of 3.3 million homes, peaking at 352,540 in 1968, the year when the rest of Europe went up in flames and Hey Jude was the best selling single. 41 percent of them were council homes. Between 1970 and now, the best year for housing was 1976 when the Labour government built 263,430 homes. The nadir is right now, 2012, with housebuilding just over the 100,000 mark and about to dip below it according to the latest figures for housing starts.
Over the past sixty years, private housebuilding has remained remarkably constant with 100,000 to 150,000 homes being built each year. It has been the dramatic fall in social housebuilding that caused the long-term decline in production. Housing associations were simply unable to take on the level of housebuilding that had previously been carried out by local authorities.
For years our sector has been extolling the economic, as well as the social benefits of house building. It’s estimated that every house produces 1.5 permanent jobs and that investment in housing has a greater multiplier impact than any other form of investment because people who move house buy new carpets, furniture and white goods.
Well it seems that ministers have finally got the message. Yesterday’s Sunday Times says that housing will be the “prime target” of a £50 billion plan for growth that will be announced within the next two months. But the programme will not be funded from the public purse but by pension funds and future revenue streams, such as tolls on upgraded roads, like the notorious A14. The Treasury has clearly factored in housing as a major component of UK growth and as a way of avoiding a double dip recession. The “presumption in favour of sustainable development” in the draft NPPF is further evidence that housing is a principal element in the recovery programme.
So is this a matter for rejoicing? Well, up to a point Lord Copper. It may be too little too late. At this stage it’s not clear how the housebuilding measures will pan out but if there is no public funding involved it’s unlikely that we will see any social or even “affordable” homes being proposed as part of the programme. It’s clearly a good thing that a Conservative-led government sees the economic merits of housebuilding (although Stanley Baldwin and Harold Macmillan both presided over much larger housing programmes). But the problem is that the housing market is a fickle beast that rarely responds in the right way to stimuli. House prices continue to fall – by 2.7 per cent outside London over the past year according to LSL Property Services. Another survey from the Halifax says that 30 per cent of those surveyed predicted prices would fall next year compared to 28 per cent who said they would rise. A gradual fall in house prices is also a good thing, but although there are continuing signs that the mortgage market is reviving - last week, for example, Barclays offered a 90 per cent fixed term mortgage - who in their right mind is going to buy a property if they think that house prices will continue to fall, especially at a time when the Eurozone crisis is still unfolding? So even though there are 300,000 extant planning permissions few housebuilders are likely to start building new homes if there is no demand.
Meanwhile, the private rented sector has grown by about 1 million homes over the past five years. The cuts in benefits that came in this year were meant to suppress rents. Many letting agents are now refusing to take benefit claimants. Yet rents continue to rise – by around by 4.3% in the past 12 months, with tenants paying an average £29 a month more than they were a year ago. The reason for this is clear - all the young people who would normally have bought a place by now are still in the rented sector or living with parents. This unmet demand is building like water behind a dam and at some point will be unleashed on the housing market. My hunch is that we will then face another panic as these punters rush to get on the housing ladder, leading to yet another boom in house prices.
So we are in a bit of a pickle, if you’ll excuse the pun, and a stimulus to private housebuilding won’t necessarily have the desired effect, at least in the short term. Perhaps the answer is an FDR-style New Deal – a massive increase in affordable housebuilding that avoids the market turbulence of the past few years, creates jobs and provides much-needed homes for those who need them. “You have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Not likely, but stranger things have happened.
Two days ago the BBC published “Eight radical solutions to the housing crisis”. They were:
1. Encourage the elderly out of big houses
2. Freestyle planning
3. Contain population growth
4. Force landlords to sell or let empty properties
5. Ban second homes
6. Guarantee mortgage payments (i.e. force the banks to lend)
7. Live with extended family
8. Build more council homes
It’s an interesting list, although the suggestion that “building more council homes” is seen as radical will have Harold Macmillan and Aneurin Bevan spinning in their graves!
Here is my quick take on the rest of it.
Number 1 is Stalinist and would upset middle England.
Short of re-negotiating the Treaty of Rome or introducing compulsory euthanasia Number 3 is a non-starter. Much of the projected growth in population is down to people living longer. The rest (about 44%) is due to in-migration, mostly from the European Union, which we are powerless to stop. This is the issue that most excites letter writers to the Daily Mail and Telegraph: in fact most of the comments in their pages during the NPPF debate focussed on immigration control as a way of solving all our problems, not just the housing crisis. Don’t go there.
Number 4 – fine, but local authorities already have powers to deal with long-term empty properties.
Number 5 is a non starter- most peers and MPs have second homes and they are hardly likely to vote for a ban. Introducing fiscal disincentives to second-home ownership is one option, but it could penalise the poor – what about families who’ve owned a chalet in Clacton for decades?
Number 7 is happening already (the average age of a first time buyer is 37) and is bound to get worse. It’s market-driven and not something you can legislate for.
That leaves numbers 2 and 6, which are to some extent two sides of the same coin. “Freestyle planning” is a clumsy description of the draft National Planning Policy Framework, and reflects the largely successful scaremongering anti-campaign run by the National Trust and others.
As I’ve argued before, we need to build at least 5 million homes over the next twenty years to catch up with under-supply and population growth, but this means building on little more than one per cent of the unprotected countryside of England (and remember that 45 percent of England’s land area is protected).
The price of land is a significant element in the price of any house – up to 50% or more in some areas. More land means lower land prices, means lower house prices. It’s a simple equation isn’t it?
Lower house prices will lead to a more balanced mortgage market which will allow more first-time buyers to borrow. One of the key arguments made against the NPPF has been the outstanding number of planning permissions - about 300,000.
Apart from the fact that this is not much more than a year’s supply of homes, the mortgage drought is a short-term phenomenon. Banks are building up their balance sheets after the crash and housebuilders won’t build if there is no demand, but they will start lending and building again before too long and if house prices are lower relative to incomes it means they will be able to build for and lend to more people.
That is why the NPPF is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore some of the balance in the housing market and, subject to some tweaking, it opens up the possibility of providing the much-needed affordable homes that we need.
So numbers 2 and 8 in the BBC list are the answer. Forget the rest. All the recent fluffy initiatives on right to buy, buy to let and under-occupation are just so much smoke and mirrors, designed to conceal the fabled elephant in the room - the fact that housebuilding is at its lowest level since 1923.
A recent British Social Attitudes Survey published by DCLG (hat-tip Jules Birch) reveals some interesting attitudes to new housebuilding.
Nearly 3,000 people were interviewed in 2010. Nationally, only 28 percent of people supported more homes being built in their local area while 46 percent opposed it. But it is the variations that are interesting.
Around 46 percent of council and housing association tenants support newbuild in their area compared to just 23 percent of home owners, and older people are more likely to oppose house-building – 52 percent of those aged 65 and above were opposed compared to only 43 percent of those aged 18 to 34.
Only inner London (plus 17% percent) and the North East (plus 1 percent) have a positive net support for new homes, whereas Outer London (minus 33 percent) and Eastern England (minus 32 percent) have the lowest level of support for new homes.
When respondents who did not support new housebuilding in their area were asked to think about the advantages of new homes (employment, better transport, schools etc) 33 percent said that nothing would make them support new building.
This shows that the CIH, NHF and the house-building industry have a tremendous battle ahead of them if they are to convince the country of the benefits of house-building.
The provisions in the Localism Bill place greater emphasis upon local consultation and neighbourhood plans. To some, this is a green light to nimbys.
The CLG guide to the Bill states that, “Local communities would also be able to grant full or outline planning permission in areas where they most want to see new homes and businesses, making it easier and quicker for development to go ahead.”
But if communities don’t want new homes in the first place then it’s not going to happen! The Bill also abolishes the Infrastructure Planning Commission and places decisions about major planning decisions that are “important to our overall economy and society” in the hands of Ministers.
In Cambridge, where I live, work has started on 3,000 new homes around the fringes of the City. This growth is needed because Cambridge is at the heart of the nation’s biotech industries and without it the national economy will suffer, yet it’s not clear to me whether similar decisions in future will be left to local communities or to the Minister.
It’s highly unlikely that the people of Cambridge would have voted for growth, but sometimes governments have to govern in the national interest. The danger of the Localism Bill is that it presents Ministers with a brilliant cop out when tough decisions have to be made.
Like Pontius Pilate, they can wash their hands and say, “Nothing to do with me, we’ve given power to the people.” Frankly, I will believe it when I see it.