The housing crisis can’t be solved by listening to those who deny we have a shortage of houses

Our housing columnist looks at a series of policy and briefing documents on the housing crisis

A row of houses UK

Christopher Worrall is a housing columnist for LFF. He is on the Executive Committee of the Labour Housing Group, Co-Host of the Priced Out Podcast, and Chair of the Local Government and Housing Member Policy Group of the Fabian Society. 

The past week has seen a flurry of policy and briefing documents highlight the extent to which the self-induced housing shortage not only blights the UK, but will play a vital role in providing growth. In what can only be described as the most concrete evidence to support the need to reform planning, research by Sam Watling and Anthony Breach of Centre for Cities, found that when compared to the average European country the UK is missing 4.3 million homes. Conservative think-tank Policy Exchange also came out with a report titled “Homes for Growth”, who also acknowledges the key role addressing the housing shortage can have in supporting growth.

Sir Keir Starmer set out his five bold ‘Missions for a Better Britain’, of which housing policy will be a vital tool in achieving his proposals. In it, his plan for “sustained growth: bottom up and middle out” outlined a route map to achieve mission number one – “securing the highest sustained growth in the G7”. The briefing paper, “Mission Economy” tipped its hat to the need to reform planning. Where plans to give working people the skills and opportunities to get will centre around help for first-time buyers, as well as building more affordable homes through reforming planning rules. Updates to the planning system will also remove barriers to investment in new industries, which will allow Britain to seize new opportunities.

Starmer’s mission driven government in waiting is set to focus future discussions on what vested interests are needed to be overcome to achieve this mission, in particular on issues like planning reform. Some of those vested interests have been poignantly highlighted recently in the New Statesman by John Elledge. Upon watching Clarkson’s Farm, Elledge found the show to have shone light on “more proof NIMBYs run the world”. He went onto state that a planning system that says no at the slightest hint of opposition, and to hell with our economic decline, is not fit for purpose. One group of vested interests that Starmer’s team should consider on how best to overcome.

Interesting ideas to help address the crisis have come out of a study by Russell Curtis, who has mapped every railway station in England and used publicly-accessible data to show that 777 of them have development potential. Curtis believes that “the coming general election could be a turning point in whether we take genuine steps to address generational inequality, particularly in respect of housing delivery. Building homes around rural stations won’t go the whole way to achieving this but, combined with other bold ideas, it could play a part”.

One study that found itself to be ignored was written by Peter Bill and Jackie Sadek. Both authors of the book Broken Homes, which explicitly denies the role of the housing shortage in high house prices. Sadly, the supply sceptics have gone a step further, publishing a policy report produced by Localis in partnership with the Housing and Finance Institute. The report, “Public rental homes: fresh perspectives”, appeared to provide no fresh perspective at all. In it they recommend a continuation of a developer contribution model for social housing that is underpinned by the concept of “neo-localism”.

Contradictory throughout, it suggests a viability led model that also can utilise public loans or grants if needed. The report discusses viability in confusing terms and when asking themselves the question “who comes up with the money?”, the report goes onto state “it doesn’t always have to be about the money”.

Go figure.

Indeed, the gap funding required will almost indefinitely be filled with grant or public borrowing in these proposals. Some might feel this is fair and just. Others may say this contradicts Starmer’s promise that Labour won’t spend its way out of the Tories mess. Developer contribution models have a strong dependence on economic cycles, which have been criticized as being too reliant on the market. Downturns see provision dry up. Longer-term funding arrangements have been argued to be more resilient than developer contribution reliant approaches.

In any case, there may well be merit in combining a form of the two. Yet one must be wary of proposals by anyone who denies the role of the housing shortage in our crisis. They too are vested interests who ideologically oppose and ignore internationally comparable evidence that demonstrates the role restrictive planning regulations has played in our housing crisis. After all, as John Elledge has aptly pointed out, weakness of English local government is the source of a fair number of our problems as a nation. Denying there is a housing shortage is simply one of them.

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