Articulating problems, finding solutions

I’m not sure whether anyone is tracking the frequency with which stories about the UK’s problems appear in the media, but intuitively you get the sense that it is increasing. Barely a day seems to pass now without something appearing prominently somewhere. Housing is not just on the agenda but moving up the agenda.

Quite a lot of this something is someone identifying a problem or an injustice. The arguments here are now becoming relatively well-rehearsed. The increased frequency with which this situation is being articulated and reported is more about turning up the volume, sharpening the focus and broadening understanding than it is about adding significant new dimensions to the story.

It is about moving concern for these issues into the mainstream. Housing is a major public policy concern, not just a problem for a minority perceived to be directly affected or a fascination for the community of housing policy wonks. [Read more…]

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…]

Policy unpacked #5 – Real estate and cities

Policy Unpacked logoFor decades local and regional government in the US has attempted to capture value created in the real estate market in order to fund vital urban infrastructure.  In an era of austerity, where resources for conventional public investment are perceived to be increasingly scarce, governments around the world are interested the potential for learning lessons and transferring successful policies or instruments.
[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…]

Shaping housing policy post-2015

Building Site - New Home ConstructionIt’s clear we’re already entering what is going to be a very long election campaign in the run up to May 2015. In the housing policy field we’re seeing plenty of organisations pitching ideas at the moment, with the aim of influencing the content of the manifestos for 2015. But we’re also seeing thinking aimed at shaping the programme for government post-election, whichever flavour of government we are landed with.

All the parties are ostensibly signed up to the idea that we need to increase housing supply dramatically. So setting out the steps likely to be needed to achieve that objective is a worthwhile exercise.

Enter the novel partnership of KPMG and Shelter. [Read more…]

Policy Unpacked #2 – Housing shortage and housing supply

Policy Unpacked logoThe issues of housing shortage and increasing housing supply feature prominently in current debates over how to deal with the UK housing crisis. Housing analysts often seek to place these urgent policy problems in the context of the longstanding issue of excess volatility in the UK housing market, and alongside an exploration of how we might make better use of the existing housing stock.

In this podcast I discuss a range of issues around housing supply with Ken Gibb, Professor of Housing Economics at the University of Glasgow and Director of Policy Scotland.  (Running time: 45′ 56″) [Read more…]

Shifting ground on housing?

Building Site - New Home ConstructionSomething interesting is happening in the world of housing policy. At least it feels that way in my more optimistic moments.

Since the Coalition government produced its housing strategy in late 2011 there has been a lot of talk about the need to deal with the housing problem, particularly on housing supply, but the action has been an order of magnitude short of what is required. With the exception of the lumbering lunacy of Help to Buy and some more focused initiatives to unblock stalled sites, there has been relatively little concerted action aimed at getting the market moving. Arguably the NPPF has worked in the opposite direction. Sure there was some talk of a new generation of garden cities. Yes there have been modest initiatives to encourage self-build. But housing supply is still at historically low levels. And yet the housebuilding industry is hitting capacity constraints.

Nothing has been attempted that you might call transformative. [Read more…]

This land is your land

Land surveyorsWe are used to thinking of NIMBYism as a parameter of the housing policy debate. The survey evidence suggests that anti-development sentiment is deep rooted and hard to shift. It is a constraint that we must work within – something to work around – rather than something to be challenged.

It is increasingly clear that NIMBYism is taken as a brute fact within the political sphere. Last month we heard that, despite apparent earlier enthusiasm, the Conservatives have gone cold on the idea of a new generation of new towns. Eric Pickles is reported to have poured cold water on the proposals because of the fears over the likely electoral cost to the Conservatives in constituencies in the rural South East. And today the Telegraph reports that Nick Boles has been told to mind his language over “aggressive planning talk”. His pro-development – and pro-developer – stance is upsetting the forces of conservatism. [Read more…]

New towns parked?

Modern HousingOne of the few policy proposals that has been able to gain support across the political spectrum is the idea that we need a new generation of new towns. If we are going to make a serious attempt to address England’s housing problems we are not going to be able to do it with incremental growth around the edges of existing settlements. Either housebuilding on the fringes will be on too modest a scale to make a dent in the problem or, if plans are scaled up, they are likely to run into implacable local opposition and make impact on the problem at all.

Eighteen months ago David Cameron was making all sorts of positive noises about the Coalition’s plans to identify suitable locations for new towns. But it’s all gone a bit quiet since then.

Jim Pickard at the FT today notes that:

The communities department had been expected to unveil a “prospectus” setting out ways to create new garden cities. But the announcement has been cancelled on at least two occasions in the past year.

Today has also seen the launch of the 2014 Wolfson Prize in Economics, which is focusing on precisely the issue of new settlements.

Progress? Possibly not. [Read more…]