Homes and Housing – How to solve the problem of supply. Its simple but not simplistic

Earlier this week I attended an LSE and BBC Radio 4 debate – ‘Housing: Where to live’.

I found the whole evening a bit disappointing – the contributions from the panel were, on the whole but not exclusively, a bit one dimensional although this is likely to have been because of the format and lack of time available. I have always said that although solving the housing problem is not difficult it is also not subject to a single solution or waving a magic wand, but too many of the evening’s contributions were along these lines. Wayne Hemmingway’s contributions came closest to offering solutions, backed up by evident passion and interest, and Rachel Fisher also took a more rounded view.

As I say, I believe that although there is no single, magic bullet, solution to the housing crisis (despite many commentators and politicians coming forward with these single issue ‘solutions’) the solutions are actually quite simple. Therefore I thought I would jot down a few of my thoughts on how the housing crisis can be solved, although it must be stressed that it will take a long time to get back to any sort of equilibrium but this makes it more important that we make a start immediately.

I am not going to fill this post with figures and charts – the figures are out there and I haven’t the time to repeat them here. I will also write, as far as possible, in broad outlines rather than write a dissertation: there is more thinking and detail behind each of the following sections on how to make them work.

Increase Development by the Public Sector:
The UK has not built enough homes for over 30 years since ‘we’ stopped funding the development of Council Homes. The private sector has not substantially increased its annual output of homes over these years – there has, of course, been fluctuations over economic cycles but the private sectors hasn’t stepped in to fill the gap left by the public sector withdrawing from the market, thus destroying any theory that in housing public building crowds out the private sector. The experiment of leaving everything to the private sector has failed; it has been given long enough to prove or disprove the theory and the latter has triumphed. So, we have to bring back the public sector into the direct funding and development of new (and refurbished) homes. At the debate on 9th June the lack of skills and capacity in Local Authorities was raised, and in a short post like this I will not respond to this in detail (and there are responses), but will just say that if we are to solve the housing crisis will have to build up this capacity – it will take time, we are likely to have to start off slowly but we must make a start. If we are serious about building more homes we must get away from the prejudice of thinking that the public sector can only be bad and the private sector can only be right.

Switch subsidy from rents to building:
One of the panel in the debate (John Stewart, Home Builders Federation) said that there is not the money available to fund more directly delivered public sector homes. I disagree: or rather I say that this is only true due to political prejudice. Currently we are spending 95% of a very big sum each year on the subsidising of rents and only 5% on subsidising building of new supply – 30 or 40 years ago we spent the 95% of a smaller sum on building new supply and only 5% on subsidising rents. We have got to return to subsidising the building of new supply and to stop subsidising rents – the latter is never ending, and much of it goes into the pockets of private landlords thus subsidising the already wealthy instead of the needy. Perhaps it is this continued welfare payment to the private sector which motivates some to say that we can’t afford to build more homes – it is not in their interest to increase supply and so reduce rents. I mentioned ‘need’ above – we must also get back to public housing being for everyone in more balanced communities, not only for the ‘needy’.

The Planning System, and Making More Land and Sites Available:
The Planning System is complex and it takes far too long to get large developments through the planning process. The work required is so expensive that only relatively few, very large, developers can afford to have vast sums of money tied up doing this work before they can build and sell a single home. I believe we still need to have a plan based system, with room for flexibility where unexpected opportunities arise (after all, the successful Eden Project was dealt with as a departure from the local plan).

In theory, the point of the Local Development Plan process is to have the vast majority of the work already done so that developers don’t have to but we must provide Local Planning Authorities with the financial, staff and capacity resources to go to the necessary level of detail, and maintain these resources over a long and guaranteed period. The Local Planning Authority also has to be given the resources to identify, plan for, fund/finance and co-ordinate the delivery of the necessary infrastructure which enables the growth to happen (and helps to get buy-in and support from their local community). These Planning Authorities also need to have the resources to take on those rich developers who decide that they will ignore the local plan and get their planing consent by out-gunning the Planners by the threat of court and the threat of damages.

In addition, the Local Planning Authorities need to over-identify and over-allocate sites in order to remove to some extent local monopolies from those who are fortunate to own those sites which have been allocated. However, this is not really viable where lots of new infrastructure is required to unlock, or respond to, development – but it can and must be done where there is spare infrastructure capacity.

We also need local plans and policies to be focussed on ‘Place-Making’ to help ensure that developers don’t maximise the value of every site regardless of what is best to make a place which works for people and complies with good urban design principles: and surely this is what the Planing System is for anyway?

In some areas Local Planning Authorities need to reduce planning uncertainty by working up master-plans and frameworks, design guides and creating Simplified Planning Zones.

Finally, we need to get the support of the general public for development – this means giving them the confidence that all of the supporting infrastructure will be in place early on; that the new development will improve their lives rather than making it worse, and even giving them something closer to what they want – houses, rather than giving them flats in high-rise developments?

More Developers and Access to Land:
We need to have more housing developers, especially small and medium sized ones but one of the things which holds them back is access to land with planning consent. Therefore Local Authorities (or some other body if Central Government doesn’t really want democratic localism) need to acquire sites (by CPO if necessary and in some cases by preference, so the increase in land values can be obtained for the public good and used to supply the necessary infrastructure); draw up a master-plan and set of design policies and guides which are loose but detailed enough to ensure that if a small developer does x,y, and z they automatically get the OK to build; and make serviced sites available in medium, small and micro sized plots.

Local Authorities need to have the funds to put in the infrastructure which is required to unlock development sites.

Small developers include self-builders and custom builders, and resources may need to be made available to build up a system where aspiring home owners; small builders; off-site manufactures; local firms of architects and designers can be brought together.

It must also be understood that small developers cannot handle large scale, high rise, developments but they can deal with houses.

To ease cash-flows of developers Local Authorities (or Development Corporations) need to make the sites/plots available on building licences until developments are completed. The public sector also needs to retain ownership of the freeholds (in Holland local authorities own much of the developable land and hardly ever dispose of the freeholds, – just like the Duke of Westminster). Quite often we are pointed to Holland, Germany and Scandinavia as exemplars of how to build more, high quality, homes and places but it seems ‘we’ don’t want to borrow any of their methods.

New Towns, Garden Cities, Eco-Towns and Sustainable Communities Growth Areas:
We also need some of these but to do so we require all of the resources mentioned above. In some places there will be the need to set up Development Corporations which can concentrate exclusively on planning, delivering and creating sustainable communities. They need to acquire sites by CPO and at existing land values, and to keep the increase in land values in order to fund infrastructure. All of what I have mentioned above about making sites and plots available to small developers and self-builders also applies here. Whoever is in charge also has to remember that they are trying to create a total-place, so jobs and the local economy also has to be fully integrated – it is not only about homes.

Balancing the National Economy:
At a larger scale we do need to plan for and provide an economy which works for everyone in all parts of the country. Only in this way will the pressure on London be reduced to a more sensible level. Some people will always want to come to London but we have to make it easier for ambitious people to be successful everywhere and anywhere in the country, and for less ambitious people to still have a decent life – we really do need a much better standard for ‘ordinary’.

This isn’t a fully detailed plan or manifesto, but rather a short outline of the few big things which we need to do if we really want to supply more homes which people can afford, in places they want to live. I do have the more detailed thinking of ‘how’ to build on the ‘what’. It isn’t very complicated but is more than doing one thing and expecting this to solve the problem.

Update November 2014
In November 2014 I added the following to my thinking in response to suggestions for land-taxation as a way to get developers to build rather than landbank:

“As Simon has said ‘don’t overcomplicate it’ , but Chris’s response is still complicating things.

I don’t think we can simplify things to a single ‘magic bullet’ but it looks like the simplist way to build more homes and bring the prices down, so that ordinary people can afford them, is to re-introduce ‘Council’ housing on a scale large enough to provide real competition to the private sector developers. This will also require properly affordable rents and long-term security of tenue”. I should have also added, occupation by choice rather than based on need.

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5 Responses to Homes and Housing – How to solve the problem of supply. Its simple but not simplistic

  1. Very good.

    I’m a Scot in Vancouver, and learned my urbanism online and in local discussions after moving here. When I look back at the UK I’m amazed how centralised it is: very few local feedback loops in development, infrastructure and taxation. The US discussion has moved to make that very explicit, with speakers like Chuck Marohn and Joe Minecozzi.

    I’m also very surprised how little talk there is of ‘freeway teardown’ as they call it here, as well as more general sprawl repair. Cities from Hull to Glasgow would surely benefit hugely from replacing the space taken up by horrible 1960s car infrastructure with avenues and walkable urbanism.

    Has the language of form-based coding, light-touch regulating plans, outdoor rooms and such not yet percolated into the general British discussion? It looks a lot like the 1960s-trained engineers are still in charge, all traffic flow and motorway signage.

  2. Rereading again in detail I want to applaud again:
    – “loose but detailed enough to ensure that if a small developer does x,y, and z they automatically get the OK to build” = a light-touch form-based code (regulating plan, loose building envelope standards to ensure good outdoor rooms, and street design standards).
    – Balancing the National Economy = economic decentralisation. Cut income taxes and transfers from central govt; and increase property taxes. More mayors and local power. I don’t know why the tories didn’t go guns blazing on this to counter the Scot Nats. The only sensible indy case seems to be a generalised decentralisation case.

  3. Do you think there’s scope for software/apps to help here? The tangle of legislation and fear of uncertain development results could be mitigated to some extent by clear visualisations, accompanied by calculation of infrastructure costs and local tax base.

  4. stevenboxall says:

    Hello Neil, thanks for your comments.

    Although I agree that there needs to be less centralisation and more localisation, I am not convinced that local government should raise more of its funds locally. Most places in the UK do not have a sufficiently strong economy or large enough tax-base to raise much or any more from local taxes. Most services supplied by UK local government is delivered by them on behalf of Central Government, so it is right that the national Government funds this – however central Government does not supply enough money to deliver the obligations they put onto local government. In the UK we often hear about cities in the USA being responsible for raising a high proportion of their own income, but we are not told about the large scale failures of these places caused through their lack of tax-base and the inability to cope with local economic or social change.

    Above and beyond the issue of adequate funding, I think that In many cases it is the attitude of local government which is more important – too often too many seem to think that improving the general well-being of their citizens isn’t a job for them, and too many look to central Government for ‘permission’ to do things, in a particular way, rather than getting down to what needs to be done,

    I am not a fan of property taxes – they are not directly linked to the ability to pay, and are inflexible in times of boom and in times of bust. Currently in the UK we are hearing from businesses that Business Rates are too high and unaffordable – this is a property based tax.

    I am also not a huge fan of powerful Local Mayors – yes, we need determined and enlightened local leadership but for every good powerful Mayor across the world there seems to be a greater number of corrupt and ‘pork-barrel’ Mayors. I was taught about the dangers of the ‘Personality Cult’, and in my eyes the obsession with powerful Mayors is moving in the direction of a personality cult; which is something we already have too much of.

    Regarding ‘Freeway Teardown’, on the whole (although not totally) the UK managed to avoid a massive programme of ‘freeway’ building into the heart of its towns and cities. I agree that the 1960’s car dominated infrastructure can and ought to be improved and made more human, which brings benefits at many levels and in many ways. I worked at the heart of the expansion of Ashford in Kent where one of the things we did was to ‘Tame’ the ring-road, removing the one-way working to turn it into a two-way system, and implemented a shared-use scheme which at the time at least was the largest in the UK. An improved and human scale public realm, and green-infrastructure were integral parts of our plans and strategy.

    Place-Making is getting onto the agenda in the UK, but it is not widespread or established enough. Because I believe that Place-Making, and making places work for people, must be at the heart of all I do, and move in these circles, in does sometimes still surprise me when I realise that this is still not mainstream and that there is still too much ‘old school’ attitudes and thinking still around.

    Finally, although I am not a total Luddite I do think that too often ‘we’ get too cariried away with ‘Software’ and ‘Apps’. The software we need to use more of is people, and a bit less of the ouputs which come out of a ‘black-box’ which is then believed without thought.

  5. Calum Murray says:

    Steven , you make many valid points …for me , none more so than the Country needs to grow the contribution of its smaller builders . It is they who have sustained the industry by training when others wouldn’t , it is they who innovate when others don’t …..,,given better access to funding and land they can become the real engine room for housing growth .

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