9 March 2023

If the Government won’t build houses, it could at least make them easier to buy


Ask a random Brit to come up with a list of professions populated by more than their fair share of dodgy characters, and odds are that journalists and estate agents would feature.

Now, I’m a journalist and several members of my extended family are in the estate agency business, so for one reason or another I struggle to get fully signed on to so jaundiced a view of either profession. 

But there are certainly people within each who don’t help the reputation of their vocation, and this week the man rubbing stains into the public image of his trade is Guy Gittins, the Chief Executive of Foxtons. Responding to the dire state of the housing market, he told the BBC, ‘The main issue is not affordability for the majority of the market – it’s the stock issue’.

That’s one of those sentences which, on the face of it, doesn’t really make any sense, and when you dig down into it makes even less – but reveals an awful lot about how the speaker views the housing crisis.

Let’s be fair: there is a problem with British housing stock – I’ve written about it for CapX. Likewise there are lots of people involved in the housing industry – not all of them high captains of a cartoon-villain company that Fresh Meat ended up sending its clueless posho to work for – I’ve written about them too.

But come on. If the state of the market means people are going to ‘have to compromise on the property type or location’, as Gettins put it – i.e. move into a worse property, in a less desirable area, with less space, and eat a long and expensive commute for the privilege – then that is an affordability crisis.

Too often, on all sides of the debate, people seem to get caught up in a one-eyed, balance sheet mindset that ignores the human reality of the housing crisis, which is that people can’t afford good homes in good places on the wages commonly available, if at all.

This is bad enough when it comes from councillors or, more bafflingly, from policy wonks who don’t have an obvious reason for trying to pretend London doesn’t have a housing shortage. But it is especially galling from the representative of an industry which often – although in defence of my blood, not always! – profits so directly off the dysfunction.

Unfortunately, getting mad at the baddies is often satisfying, but much less often a useful way to approach a problem. And whilst sharp-practice amongst estate agents should certainly be cracked down upon, they are ultimately a symptom of the deeper problem.

That problem is not only that we have vastly under-supplied the housing market with new stock for decades, but that actually trading the stock we have is a uniquely and needlessly arduous experience. 

To someone not steeped in the mania of our system – a visitor from New Zealand, or America, or Scotland – the idea that the process of buying a home could take, from agreement to completion, three to five months would seem insane. Because it is! And yet, that’s the system we have allowed to develop in England and Wales.

Such a drawn out process isn’t just irritating – although take it from someone in the foothills of it, it is certainly irritating – but entails real costs. 

For starters, it vastly expands the point of failure in a transaction. (In this regard it charmingly mirrors our discretionary planning system.) Both buyer and seller have plenty of time to change their mind, or their offer; sometimes the process can drag out so long people lose their mortgage offers.

On other occasions, the survey – which in other countries the seller is required to conduct once, ahead of time, but we choose to require each prospective buyer to conduct once the process is underway – can throw up something which kills the deal. Or the bank’s valuer can eyeball the property, decide it’s worth less than the bid, and kill the mortgage.

Combine that needlessly fraught and immiserating process with the fact that most people in the residential property market (except serial landlords and the very wealthy) enter it only a few times in their lives, and you have the perfect environment for unscrupulous middlemen. That power and rents accrue to those who can navigate a dysfunctional system is just another reason dysfunctional systems are bad, go figure.

There is no ultimate solution to the housing crisis which does not involve building millions of new, desirable properties in the places people actually want to live. 

But given that the Government doesn’t have sufficient fight in it to take on the powerful vested interests determined to prevent that happening, legislating to streamline the process of trading property and reduce the scope for predation on inexperienced sellers ought to be a win ministers could actually deliver.

It presumably wouldn’t be quite as simple as un-kneecapping their own official savings vehicle – it’s hard to think of anything simpler, and yet it goes undone – but it would definitely help, and be difficult for even the most diabolic Nimby to object to.

Perhaps Sir Keir Starmer will get round to it.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.