26 January 2023

Nothing sums up British decay quite like the period property premium


The British housing market is so broken that it is perfectly easy to be angry about it even on abstract terms, totting up the cost to the economy or looking ahead to how the social trends it sustains will destroy the traditional basis of the centre-right vote over the next couple of decades.

But it’s the smaller things, and our personal experience of them, that really helps the hatred seep down to bone depth. I’ve been relatively lucky as a renter, but have still written previously about the grinding irritation of never having enough fridge space, or the difficulty of keeping books when you don’t have a flat to yourself and you’re forced to move every couple of years.

Stuff like that doesn’t necessarily show up in official statistics, but it does matter – and that’s before you even come to the carousel of interviews, bidding wars, and other indignities which face people trying to rent today, especially, but by no means exclusively, in London.

And that’s just renting. Try getting on the housing ladder and a whole new set of frustrations await. There’s the baffling realisation that the Government has, for no obvious reason, capped the value of a home you can purchase via a Lifetime ISA, a vehicle specifically intended for first-time buyers. Or the joy of discovering all the things which give mortgage lenders fits of the vapours, such as a flat being above a shop.

Having trudged around a lot of viewings, however, by far the biggest bugbear is the extraordinary premium placed by buyers – and thus, reflected in prices – on housing stock of a sort that we simply don’t build anymore. If you want high ceilings, big sash windows, an attractive street, or any combination thereof, you’ll need to find yourself a ‘period conversion’. (This assumes you’re a first-time buyer looking for a flat. If you’re lucky enough to be looking for a house with the same characteristics simply substitute ‘property’ for ‘conversion’ and take a moment to bask in your happy circumstances.)

For anyone not steeped in the internal logic of the British housing market, this situation must seem ridiculous. The word ‘decline’ is thrown about perhaps too easily online, but it’s hard to think of a more apt summary of a situation in which century-old stock commands a premium over modern products. Can you imagine paying extra to fly in an old aeroplane, from back in the days when we built them properly? Or for a first generation phone?

Yet we have lived with this distortion for so long that it has come to seem like part of the landscape. In this widely-shared farewell essay by the BBC’s outgoing Japan correspondent, for example, the fact that a house is a depreciating asset is presented as a problem that ought to be fixed. How do you solve a problem like cheap and plentiful housing? (Noah Smith is good on why this is nuts.)

Given that we have a type of property for which there is clearly strong demand – even if it often means shouldering higher costs arising from maintenance, poor insulation, and the like – then why don’t we build more of it? How have we ended up in a situation where, as one estate agent put it to me, friends don’t let friends buy new-builds?

Part of it is simply the general consequences of an uncompetitive market. With housing generally in short supply – and high costs marginalising small builders, self-build, and other alternatives – new stock can be cheaply built for the simple reason that it will sell anyway. Inter-war builders would probably be surprised to learn that people in the 2020s would be dividing their houses into flats just so more people could get a chance to live in them, but the market conditions which saw those houses built are gone.

But part of it is also directly the fault of government. The accumulated weight of building regulations not only places onerous additional costs on builders – which, again, large construction firms are best able to bear – but also makes some of the most cherished features of period properties impossible to build into modern housing.

As a bit of a window snob – you learn new things about yourself when you’re shopping for flats – the restrictions on those strike me as particularly egregious. Building regulations such as those outlined here in Document O place hard limits on the size of windows, apparently to help us adapt to climate change – and the rules are even more restrictive in London. Now, adapting construction methods to warmer temperatures is important. But the market would allow space for innovative ways to do that, such as air conditioning or innovative use of materials. Instead, the state has simply mandated that windows must be small. Job done, enjoy your hutch.

And whilst there was never an epidemic of people falling out of their first floors, there are nonetheless strict restrictions on sash windows today – how far they can open, how far they can be from the floor – just in case. And if you wanted a stoop – a few steps up to your front door – you’re also out of luck; accessibility regulations forbid, I’m afraid. (Document M, if you’re interested.) Once again, accessibility is important. But there is surely a happy medium between nothing and mandating that every new building, including private residences, be subject to stringent requirements to cater to a very small minority of possible future users.

Many of the problems with the planning system and housing market are maintained in part because the costs don’t fall on the people with the power to change them. That’s why I previously suggested forcing the nation to choose between planning reform and a bedroom tax, so that a share of the costs of the housing shortage is borne by current homeowners. Likewise, the regulations mandating ugly, boring new builds are issued and kept in place by politicians who in many cases live in lovely period properties themselves. Like the Nimbys, they pay no cost for this, whilst similarly reaping the benefits of soaring house prices.

So, in the same spirit as the ‘Boomer bedroom tax’, I’d like to suggest another law we’ll never pass: the Ministers of the Crown (Dwellingplaces) Bill. This ground-breaking legislation would make it illegal for any Minister or Secretary of State to own or rent a residential property which could not be built under current building regulations.

If they think their property is good enough for them, they should legalise it for others, or they should lose it.

And whilst we’re at it, we could stop them claiming parliamentary expenses towards the cost of living in any property they couldn’t get a mortgage on in current conditions too. 

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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.