A New Year, Same Old Housing Shortages

We started 2016 campaigning as we always do.

The front page headline on the New Year’s Eve edition of the Guardian last week was:Revealed: house builders sitting on 600,000 plots of land.

This is part of the sorry UK house building situation that has been a contributing factor to housing un-affordability and shortages for the 15 years that HemingwayDesign has been designing mass housing. I have written before about the profits that the large house builders are making, by building fewer homes (with any product shortages will always force prices up) but you can’t expect house builders to suddenly become ethical and not chase the highest possible pay-outs for the directors and shareholders. That is not the kind of economy we live and sadly goes against human nature.

But surely one of the major responsibilities of government is to ensure that greed doesn’t make society worse and leave many behind. If that is the case then this government had better get its finger out as every month the situation gets worse as the sheer fun and delight in owning your own home sprints further from those without help from mum and dad. 

Ed Milliiband proposed a “use it or lose it” policy for undeveloped land. This remains a good idea but the house builders have argued that the planning system is so slow that it prevents them from building. Whilst I believe they over egged this problem (after all its in their interest to keep housing scarce) councils will tell you that their planning departments are being decimated by government imposed cuts and that this is having a knock on effect on recruiting quality individuals (the best young brains are not seeing planning as a career option).

In their rush to shrink the state this Government have been picking away at trying to deflect planning onto local communities to shortcut the logjam that housebuilders blame on local authorities. This appears to be having little or no effect. Whilst the public do have a conscience about affordable housing for their children they are more often or not faced with miserable “cheap” identikit housing (after all there is little or no design resource in planning offices anymore) that is not only cheap in design terms but in monetary terms is far from the reach of the generation that we all want to help. (24 years of saving to buy a “mean” new-build anybody?

So faced with this people vote for the status quo. They don’t want to “bring down the neighbourhood” with housing that’s ugly. The media call this nimbyism but on many occasions it’s hard to blame people for doing their utmost to block development.

I don’t think we should give up on community planning and building democracy into the heart of planning, far from it, but surely the key part of any community initiatives is trust and the building of solid relationships between the community and the private sector. In this case the public have little or no trust in house builders. House builders take note that the vast majority of the public don’t like what you offer (see stats about this here). So even though community planning usually means consulting those that already have their foot on the ladder those that need the new houses don’t like what’s on offer. What a mess! 

The 9 house builders that hold over 600,000 plots, when confronted with the fact that they only delivered just over 10% of these last year would also point to materials and skills shortages. How dysfunctional can things get? We don’t have full employment so how come we are not training sufficient numbers for decent paid trades? We have migrants desperate to come here who would likely throw themselves at jobs in construction. We are a rich country with billions of pounds in private cash ready for investment; surely we can make more bleedin’ bricks?

Add to all this the fact that councils continue to have to make cuts, the number of families in B&B‘s are going up, Right to Buy strips councils of much needed affordable rental housing (for instance Harrow Council lost 50% of its Right to Buy stock since Margaret Thatcher introduced RTB in 1979  and 43% of this has gone over to private landlords!)

A big mess indeed.

On the first day back to work in 2016, the government have a least announced what does seem like a common sense policy of encouraging local authorities to release public land to small house builders. Small and medium size house building companies do get land to market quicker so maybe this will help to break the debilitating stranglehold that the major house builders. Lets hope the government are not just allocating prohibitively expensive land that the major players won’t touch!