Defining the challenge of UK housing policy

immobilier parisienYesterday I was back up in that London to attend an event exploring UK housing policy. Many, of not most, of the luminaries of UK housing research made the same journey. The event covered quite a lot of ground, but at the same time the agenda was relatively narrow – focusing as it did on the macro, credit, housing supply, planning nexus. The discussion left me with plenty to think about and there is no way that it could be meaningfully summarised in a blog post. So here are a few quick reflections – not all of which flow from what was actually discussed on the day.

Three of the biggest challenges we currently face in housing are not technical policy challenges. They are perspective, purpose, and politics. [Read more...]

Social housing transformations

3d Render Of House Concept (Rent Metaphor)Last Thursday I toddled up to London to take part in a conference entitled Next Generation Solutions: Housing Transformation, organised by HACT/Northern Housing Consortium. I followed Frances Coppola as part of the final plenary session. My talk on the day was called Social Housing 2.0. But I’m not entirely sure that captures what I said. So I’ve retitled it here. You can find the text to accompany my presentation below the fold.

It was a very interesting event, with the various presentations cohering well around the theme (I’ll exclude my presentation from that statement – that’s for others to judge!). [Read more...]

Lyons leaps to height?

collage of photos of the industry of construction and buildingThe final report of the Lyons Housing Review – which may well be the last major party political publication on housing before the election – was published this week. How does it measure up? Has it delivered on the ambition to sort out the chronic problems of the UK’s housing supply system?

We’ve already seen plenty of political and professional reaction. And that reaction has been mixed.

Some see the Review’s 39 recommendations as adding up to a bold intervention to address the deeply-ingrained problems facing Britain’s misfiring housing market. Others have characterised the Review as representing a rather modest set of technocratic suggestions to deal with particular problems in the supply chain. Those looking for a bold new vision for housing are likely to have come away disappointed.

But we need to understand the nature and scope of the Review itself. [Read more...]

Political Economy is in the house

(First posted at reshapedebate.net, 14/10/14)

Saving For A HouseWe need a new approach to thinking about housing. Not only do we need to think differently about housing, but political economy more broadly needs to recognize the centrality of housing. It is not possible to carry out meaningful macro-social analysis without recognizing that the housing market occupies a position at the heart of capitalist society.

Those, at least, are the contentions that Manuel Aalbers and Brett Christophers (A+C) advance in Centring housing in political economy (£), a paper that recently appeared online and which will form the centrepiece of a future focus issue of Housing, Theory and Society.

A+C start with “capital” which they rightly consider “arguably the central category of political economy” and develop their argument in three parts. They:

identify the multiple (and ever more material) roles of housing when capital is considered from the perspective of each of its three primary, mutually constitutive guises: capital as process of circulation; capital as social relation; and capital as ideology. (p3)

A+C style the contemporary analysis of housing as being dominated by housing-as-policy, which is the focus of social policy analysis, and housing-as-market, which is the domain of mainstream economics. Given this reading of the terrain they argue that there is a pressing need for a political economy perspective which takes housing seriously and theorizes it as integral to capitalist dynamics. [Read more...]

Locating a plan for housing

housing coverKate Barker has been a significant presence in UK housing policy debate for a decade. Her report for the Blair government in 2004 crystallised the idea that we need to be building north of 200,000 houses a year to stabilize the housing market. And by stabilizing the market the report meant stopping real house price rises, rather than necessarily improving affordability. This idea has been floating about in the policy ether ever since, acting as a benchmark against which current policy is judged. Estimates of target housing supply have varied a bit since then as demographic projections and models get revised, but the brute fact is that actual housing supply has only exceptionally come anywhere close to hitting the sorts of numbers Barker viewed as necessary. Since the financial crisis new supply has been hovering around half what is needed.

Barker has returned to the fray with a brief book entitled Housing: Where’s the plan? The book focuses on private sector housing. Barker notes, rightly, that the social sector deserves a book length treatment of its own.

Brian has already offered his perspective on the book. I broadly agree with his assessment. Barker’s analysis is pitched at the right sort of level – we need to think broadly and systemically about the problem if we are to get any real purchase on it. Consequently simple solutions are unlikely to be adequate. The book doesn’t pin the blame on planning and move on. Barker reminds us of the powerful forces driving spatial development at the regional level. She concisely demonstrates the complexities and contradictions in the way we think about taxation in the housing market. Indeed, perhaps not surprisingly, the strongest component of the argument is the review of taxation and monetary policy. The book does a good job of conveying a sense of the interconnections within the housing system and the perverse consequences that can arise from intervention, however well-intentioned. [Read more...]

A bit of substance on housing to end the season?

House being builtWe’re most of the way through the Party Conference season, with only the Liberal Democrats left to play. So far it’s been a bit underwhelming on the housing policy front.

Labour offered a number of proposals. Some of them had been announced previously. Many of them were rather vague and aspirational.  Some of them looked kind of familiar – the Mansion Tax proposal most specifically. However, the proposal that many were hoping for – the big prize – relaxing the fiscal rules so that local authorities were allowed greater freedom to borrow for new development – was squashed by Ed Balls. Labour housing colleagues are now looking towards the Lyons Review – which is alleged to be emerging soon – to add a bit of ballast to the policy position.

The Conservative conference was rather short on specific housing policy announcements. Most of the announcements relevant to housing were focused on curtailing benefits to various groups deemed undeserving. I imagine one or two social landlord CEOs will be having sleepless nights worrying about their cashflows should the Conservatives be elected to govern alone come May 2015.

The eye catching announcement at the Conservative conference was the proposal to deliver 100,000 homes to first time buyers under the age of 40 at a 20% discount, with the homes to be cheaper because they’re built on brownfield industrial land. [Read more...]

The Mansion Tax as a symptom

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week proposed an increase in spending on the NHS to be funded in part by a Mansion Tax.  This has sparked the debate about the whys and wherefores of property taxes back into life. Taxing property a topic guaranteed to send the commentariat into a frenzy. It is a topic I’ve touched on before. Property taxes can be seen as a potential solution to a range of different problems, while others seem to see them as the start of a slippery slope to the demise of capitalism.

I sent a letter on the topic to the Evening Standard yesterday. This is what I wrote: [Read more...]

Developments in the ongoing Bedroom Tax saga

8610361700_dea8d85350_zYou have to admire Andrew George. Or at least I do. Commentators are busying themselves accusing the Liberal Democrats of inconstancy or hypocrisy in supporting his Private Members’ Bill to reform the Bedroom Tax. But we should remember that George has ploughed a rather lonely furrow in consistent opposition to the policy from the start, even as the bulk of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party repeatedly lined up behind the Tories to support it.

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the George’s Affordable Homes Bill, if it were to be successful, would bring housing benefit policy closer to current Liberal Democrat party policy. In that respect the Liberal Democrats can’t be accused of hypocrisy. The more problematic issue is why the Libdem leadership supported a policy of such obvious boneheadedness in the first place.

Nor is it hypocritical to change position on a policy as new evidence comes to light. That is entirely reasonable and sensible. The more problematic issue is that the evidence that is said to have triggered the Liberal Democrat leadership change of position is not, really, very new. It largely confirms what people who understand the housing sector have been saying about the policy’s likely consequences since before the policy was implemented.

But there is some very clear hypocrisy and obfuscation in the Liberal Democrat messaging around yesterday’s events. [Read more...]

The value of planning

Earlier this month there was a small flurry of comment in the media about the impact of planning on house prices (for example, here). The question was why house prices in Britain have grown faster than most other countries over the last forty years. A big chunk of the answer was “planning”, in the form of development planning and development control. If only the planning regime had been more lax more houses would have been built and the escalation in house prices would have been attenuated. The commentary was triggered by the imminent publication of a paper in the Economic Journal by Hilber and Vermeulen, which in turn is – I presume – a version of a paper that has been available as a SERC working paper for a couple of years.

This is the latest in an intermittent series of papers, largely generated by economists based at LSE/Reading, making similar sorts of points. The headline message is that the planning system is at the heart of the British housing supply problem. It is the primary cause of our sluggish housing supply response.

The “planning is the problem” position is making most of the running in this debate, and seemingly is never far from the heart of policy thinking.

If you have been reading this blog for a while you will know that it is a position that I don’t have a huge amount of sympathy for. It is too simplistic. It leaves out consideration of the influence and divergent interests of the range of stakeholders in the housing supply process.

Back in June, partially as a counter to this dominant strand of thinking, a report entitled The Value of Planning was published by the Royal Town Planning Institute. I’ve only just had a chance to read the report properly.

Publication through the RTPI might elicit a sceptical response – after all they would say that wouldn’t they? But that would be unfair. [Read more...]

Attitudes towards new development soften

There is a broad consensus among politicians, analysts and commentators that Britain needs to build more housing. You can encounter dissent from that view, but it tends to be on the fringes – in deep UKIP anti-migrant territory or the paramilitary wing of the rural lobby.

The debate opens up when we start to examine why Britain is plagued with a relatively unresponsive housing supply system. On the political right and among many economists the problem is seen to lie with the planning system. Full stop. Economists with a more subtle understanding of the issues will argue it is the mismatch between the underlying spatial dynamics of economic growth and the planning system. For the more institutionally inclined, the analysis has to be broadened to encompass not just the planning system but also industrial structure of housebuilding and the concentrated nature of the market for land. Weakening the planning system without attending to the other components of the housing supply system won’t get you very far. It is very likely to lead to anger in local communities as their areas are trampled over by insensitive volume housebuilders throwing up unsympathetic developments which place additional strain on under-resourced local infrastructure.

The attitudes of local communities towards new development in their area is an important part of the equation in encouraging new supply. Because when we refer to “the planning system” it should be seen as a short hand for the way local political preferences are embedded in the systems for controlling spatial development. NIMBYism isn’t such a huge problem unless it has an institutional outlet and can affect what happens on the ground.

The publication today of the results of the 2013 British Social Attitudes survey evidence on attitudes towards new development suggest that things may be changing. [Read more...]