The disconnected housing debate

There is something of an oddity in the debate over the nature of the problems facing the UK housing system, and therefore by implication where the focus of policy attention is best directed. I’ve remarked on it before but it struck me forcefully this week when reading Christian Hilber’s new briefing, prepared with the aim of informing the election debate, UK housing and planning policies: the evidence from economic research. This was reinforced by Andrew Lilico’s contrarian post at CapX yesterday, which argues that there is no housing crisis and never was one. I don’t agree with Lilico’s overarching argument, but in the course of his discussion he makes a very important point. [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…]

Doing something about housing

Modern HousingWhat to do about the housing crisis? It’s a question that, should you have been so inclined, you could have focused on throughout much of yesterday’s proceedings at Liberal Democrat Spring Conference.

A motion on the reform of planning policy was passed, unamended, during the morning’s official business. The motion was particularly critical of the role of the Planning Inspectorate and the Communities Secretary in overriding local democracy and aspirations.

The programme for the conference fringe offered you a near overdose of housing. The lunchtime fringe included a session on social housing jointly organised by CentreForum, The Fabian Society and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. On the – metaphorical – platform were Sir Michael Lyons, Tim Farron, and Kathleen Kelly of JRF. The session was packed.

The early evening fringe offered a session asking where new housing should be built, organised by the Green Liberal Democrats. Mid-evening allowed you to move on to consider private renting, in a session organised by ALDC, before finishing up with a reappearance of Tim Farron among those at a late evening session on Liberal Democrats in Housing – the future of the priced out.

I have to admit I didn’t manage to stay the course. I was feeling a bit too rough and had to have a very early night – not at all appropriate behaviour at conference, I realise, but I couldn’t do much about it.

What points would I draw from the sessions that I attended? [Read more…]

Boris’s housing plan

[This post originally appeared at The Conversation under a different (longer) title, 27/11/13]

London’s population is increasing rapidly and forecasts say this growth is set to continue over the next decade and more. However, the last time the capital had enough new houses to match this rate of population growth was the 1930s. Homes are becoming less affordable; needs and aspirations are going unfulfilled. London has a housing problem of serious dimensions.

This week, Boris Johnson gave us an indication of what he is proposing to do about the situation, with the publication of another draft housing strategy for consultation.

The strategy starts with a broadly sensible diagnosis of the nature, complexity, and consequences of the housing problem. The scale of the problem is already alarming, and it is only going to get worse.

The document is equally interesting when it moves on to proposed solutions. [Read more…]

Miliband’s housing promises reflect an escalating crisis

[Originally posted at The Conversation, 25/09/13]

Modern Housing

The commentariat has gone into overdrive in the wake of Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference. Does it represent, at last, the shattering of the neoliberal consensus? Is it the articulation of a vision for a more inclusive and humane social democratic future? Or is it the sound of the clock being wound back to the bad old days of the 1970s, and a Labour leadership only marginally to the right of Fidel Castro?

Miliband’s speech roamed across relatively broad policy terrain, with the announcement of an energy price freeze generating the most coverage. But I want to look a little more closely at what he had to say about housing policy.

The measure that had been heavily trailed prior to the speech was the abolition of the so-called “bedroom tax”. This will prove popular with many voters, even if they are not directly affected by it. The underoccupancy penalty, as it is officially known, represents a policy blunder of some considerable magnitude.

You may or may not agree with the principle. There are plausible arguments for and against. But it is hard to disagree that the policy has been implemented in a context almost guaranteed to ensure that its stated aims are frustrated. [Read more…]

The perversity of the politics of housing

The abject failure of housing policy is among the biggest challenges facing this country yet it barely gets a mention on the hustings or in any political debate.

(Anthony Hilton, Evening Standard, 28/05/13)

There was a time when the stance taken by the major political parties on housing issues was a key General Election battleground. But that was half a century ago. With high costs and insecurity pervasive, the UK housing market is evidently very sick at the moment. This has significant short- and long-term consequences for the broader macroeconomy and significant impacts on households’ well-being. Yet, housing policy has so far failed to gain real political traction.

When the Government does propose to intervene on a substantial scale – in the form of Help to Buy – the policy is all about political calculation and very little about doing what needs doing to get the housing system into better shape. Indeed, beyond the Treasury and the industry interest groups that stand to benefit directly from the policy, commentators across the spectrum – including the IMF and the OECD – display near unity in condemning the policy as extremely unwise. I have had words about Help to Buy on a couple of previous occasions (here and here). [Read more…]

Nick Boles and the philosophy of the garden

To what sorts of things do people have moral rights? That’s a profound question worthy of more than a mere blog post.

We could turn to the thirty articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for inspiration. We’ll see an aspirational list of rights which still, more than 60 years after its adoption, many countries fail to deliver in full. In that list at number three we have:

  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Now we know that “liberty” and its realisation is a complex concept. It can, though, incorporate access to adequate housing as a foundation for personal development and security.

But we needn’t try to use Article 3 to cover the issue. We’ve got further resources to draw on when thinking about housing. [Read more…]

Housing at half-time

There isn’t a great deal of disagreement about the key problems facing the British housing market.

The main issues are high housing costs in both the owner occupied and private rented sectors, with correspondingly high bills for housing allowances. Many households have difficulties in accessing appropriate accommodation, particularly given the limited flow of lettings in the social rented sector. And the market is subject to high volatility by international standards, which has negative ramifications for the macroeconomy. The root cause of this is the failure of housing supply – over a period measured in decades rather than years – to keep pace with the increase in the number of households.

The disagreements start to emerge when we move on to discuss what we should do about it. And, more specifically, to consider whether the Government is currently doing enough to address the problems identified. The Government has provided a perfectly sensible diagnosis of the problem. There has been quite a bit of policy pronouncement and promise. Much of the early bustle was brought together in last year’s strategy, Laying the foundations.

But does all this add up to a policy response that is appropriately targeted and on sufficient scale to make a dent in the problem? [Read more…]

Housing and the economy

[This text was prepared to accompany my presentation to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Housing, 10/09/12]

Many people appear to be coming round to the idea that investment in housing could be the way forward in attempting to revive the economy. There are good reasons for thinking that housing investment is a promising avenue to pursue. Even though the estimates differ somewhat in magnitude, the direct impacts of investment in terms of increasing employment and taxation and reduced unemployment benefits are now relatively clear. And import leakage is low. The multipliers and indirect impacts of housing investment compare very favourably with those for other types of investment.


It is very welcome that greater policy attention has focused upon housing, but we should recognise that we face intersecting issues here. There is the urgent need to identify an effective macroeconomic lever. House building may well do the job.

But there are longstanding concerns about the housing supply system in the UK. [Read more…]

Desperate times call for …

It’s hard to know what to make of yesterday’s slew of policy initiatives in the housing field. It is clear that they are directed primarily at boosting the economy, rather than being any sort of considered response to the problems of the housing market. You get the sense that the Government has pretty much run out of ideas and it just so happens that doing something with housing investment might help. It’s incidental that it is housing. It’s the only lever left to pull.

There has already been a healthy debate in the mainstream and social media as to whether any of the Government’s initiatives will have much impact upon either growth or the housing market.

Much of the media attention has been directed at the relaxation of planning permission on extensions and conservatories. I think it is a safe bet that this is going to make negligible difference to economic activity in the aggregate. [Read more…]