How to unblock home building

A very interesting new collection of essays on housing has just been published by Green Alliance, Green social democracy: better homes in better places.  My essay contributed as an ‘independent commentator’, is on how to get more homes built without sacrificing the countryside.  Here it is.

Britain needs more houses.  For years we have built too few new homes and converted too few existing buildings for housing, with the result that too many people are forced to live in housing conditions that shame a wealthy nation.  We have a housing crisis.

But setting ambitious targets and imposing development on local communities will not solve the crisis.  The last government tried that and the coalition is following a remarkably similar path, except that it calls it ‘localism’.  Top down imposition results in aggravation and poor development.  Numbers come to trump location, design and environmental efficiency, but still too few homes get built.

Governments then blame planning (it is harder to blame democracy) and change the system. There were two major reforms of planning under Labour, and there has been one so far under the coalition.  But planning is not the problem, nor is the availability of land.[1]  The problem is the assumption by governments since Margaret Thatcher’s, in the face of all evidence, that the private sector, in particular  large house builders, will build many more homes if only we make it easier for them.

It is politically unpalatable to all three main parties, but the fact is that when this country built enough houses, the state built over half of them; since state production has slumped, we have built too few.

For 30 years after the war, the public sector built at least 130,000 houses a year in England. Since 1979, relatively little public housing has been built and there has been no significant private sector growth to compensate.  Private sector output has been fairly consistent since the war, allowing for wider economic fluctuations, and there is no evidence that private companies are either able or willing to build the number of homes the country needs.  Bashing the planning system and arm-twisting local authorities to release rural land for housing will not alter that.

So, what is to be done?

I would like to set out how to resolve the housing crisis, how to build plenty of homes in well-planned settlements that enhance people’s lives while limiting environmental damage and protecting green space, not least the countryside.  Unfortunately, there is not space here to do so, so I will limit myself to a few pointers.

First, we must spend more money.  The percentage of public expenditure devoted to house building fell from 5.6 per cent in 1981 to just one per cent in 2000.  It now stands at around 2.2 per cent.  The last Labour government improved the social housing stock but built far too few new homes.  Worse, it nodded at spiralling property prices, not only because it made property-owning voters feel good, but because property taxes funded much of its spending.

Stamp duty receipts are predicted to rise from around £3 billion a year to £12 billion by 2018 and a significant part of this increase should be devoted to building houses.  This would help those in housing need.  It could also have the desirable effect of dampening house price inflation, if that is an aim, as it should be.

More can also be done to unlock pension funds to revive the private rental sector and promote mixed tenure housing, as proposed by the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Future Homes Commission.

Serious state and institutional investment in housing can help return some sense of ambition to housing policy beyond numbers alone.  Currently, if a developer says it can only afford to build sub-standard homes and create faceless places with no sense of place, and that a decent development is ‘unviable’, the local authority is powerless to say no.  This is happening now across England[2], and it is not good enough.

There is also scope for more self-build housing, with individuals hiring small builders to build them a home.  But self-build should not be an unplanned free-for-all.  We should allocate appropriate sites and master plan the settlements, as happens in Holland.

Politicians should articulate a clear vision for the sort of places they want to see created.  Labour is acutely aware of the failures of past visions, of planning disasters that demonstrate that the man in Whitehall, or the woman in the town hall, does not always know best, but there are plenty of good examples of thoughtful developments that work well.  There are many more examples of developments that damage places and the people who have to live in them.

A welcome commitment to respect local people and local circumstances should not prevent central government from promoting best practice and empowering local authorities to reject sub-standard developments.  And, ultimately, we will only be able to get new housing on the scale we need if there is public consent.  That means focusing on the quality and location of new development, not just the numbers.

We can build attractive family houses at densities of 30 to 50 dwellings per hectare, with plenty of green space and adequate parking.  It just takes some thought and care.  Denser communities support local services and public transport, cut carbon, protect green space, and enhance community.  If we are to build sustainably, socially as well as environmentally, and create settlements people want to live in and near to, we should favour proximity over dispersal, place-making over mere numbers of houses.[3]

We can resolve the housing crisis.  We just need ministers who combine Harold Macmillan’s commitment to numbers; Nye Bevan’s belief in quality, space standards and mixed communities; and John Gummer’s and John Prescott’s drive to regenerate towns and cities by reusing previously developed land.  That should not be too difficult.

[1] Building in a Small Island: why we still need a brownfield-first approach, CPRE November 2011.  There is at least enough suitable brownfield land in England for 1.5 million new homes, including 400,000 in London, and that the stock of brownfield land is growing much faster than it is being used.

[2] Countryside Promises, Planning Realities, CPRE March 2013.

[3] The Proximity Principle: why we are living too far apart, Rebecca Willis, CPRE May 2008; Family Housing: the power of concentration, CPRE April 2008.

3 Responses to “How to unblock home building”

  1. 1 Tim Lund September 20, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    “the fact is that when this country built enough houses, the state built over half of them”

    This must depend on how far back you look – and in fact I don’t think it was true before WW2. What changed?

  2. 2 colin wiles (@colinwiles) September 20, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Lack of land for housebuilding is the problem. Full stop. To suggest otherwise is misleading and disingenuous. We have plenty of land, but have our priorities are completely wrong and the countryside lobby is too powerful.

  3. 3 Tim Lund September 21, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Lack of land for house building, or lack of space and opportunity? What got me involved with CPRE, specifically CPRE London, was the vision of its former Chair, Harley Sherlock, of compact residential communities – see this link – – with his explanation of how traditional Georgian London development did just that – and better than post war high rise. The problem in London now is that even more people want to live here, and especially in the centre, which is a welcome reflection of decreasing car dependency, especially among younger generations. So finding more land, which is so much easier out of town, is not so much the problem as finding ways to increase the density of already developed land. This should not be at the cost of building over valued urban green spaces either, so may involve some higher rise development, but good architects should be able to find acceptable solutions. Somehow the planning process is not giving them the opportunities.

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