5 March 2018

The government is ignoring popular, easy fixes to the housing crisis

By John Myers

Horrified passengers suddenly realize their boat has a leak. They frantically start to paddle it with their hands towards a distant shore. The engine and sail sit ignored and unused. Meanwhile, someone at the stern refuses to raise the anchor.

Theresa May’s announcement of new housing policies today has something of that feel. No-one can doubt her government’s determination to do something. She is bang on target when she says:

The shortage of housing in this country reinforces inequality. It prevents social mobility and stops people fulfilling their potential. It creates and exacerbates divisions between generations and between those who own property and those who do not.

Yet it is still official policy, spelled out to the Letwin Review, for the housing shortage to continue to get worse. It is still official policy to force councils to permit more housing in the teeth of fierce opposition, rather than concentrate on ways to get local people clamouring for more homes. And the new policy on housing need has discovered that house prices may be relevant in planning (fancy that!) but then chickened out when it comes to comparing them to construction costs to help measure how much poor planning has damaged our housing supply and our economy – by perhaps 25 per cent of GDP on our estimates, or more than any single event since the Black Death of 1348-49.

Homeowners will finally be encouraged to add floors on the existing footprint, after consistent pressure from, among others, Nick Boles MP, John Penrose MP and our campaign at London YIMBY, but only if there’s already another building of that increased height nearby. What about the thousands of streets where no building has more than two floors? What about the endless expanses of ugly concrete parking places? Can’t we do something better with them?

Who is going to pick the design codes for these extensions? Do you think the likely resulting mishmash is going to make building more popular?

Barlow, Barry, Cubitt, Gilbert Scott and the others who designed so much of the cities that we love must be spinning in their graves at our lack of vision and ambition.

The nasty secret behind today’s incomplete approach to housing is that no government for the last 40 years has really wanted to build plenty of homes. They have all known that rising house prices raise consumer confidence, which gets governments re-elected. Homeowners are nearly two-thirds of voters. It’s a bit like serfdom except that, unlike the serfs, the renters are a minority and have no hope of a revolution.

All the noise of housing and planning reforms is just that – noise – until government recognizes that the only way to square that circle is to make house building popular with local people. That probably means it has to produce something that they want – whether it is more community facilities, better parks, or simply raising the value of their own properties by allowing them to extend more or replace with many more homes.

The endless ranting about brick shortages, foreign ownership, empty homes, interest rates and speculators distracts from the real problem. If government really wanted to fix the shortage, it would. It doesn’t. The only way to persuade it is to give it politically attractive options.

The London YIMBY campaign ploughed through hundreds of reforms last year to find the few that could be both effective and politically popular. Since then they have received widespread support from across the political spectrum.

The simplest is just to let residents of a single street vote – requiring a two-thirds majority – to set a design code and give themselves more rights to build how they want. Bloomsbury, the Royal Crescent in Bath and the other great estates were built with a plan, often only a few houses at a time or by different builders. In a world of many homeowners, we need to let residents create their own mini-masterplans. Most neighbourhood planning areas are too big for that to happen. Tens of thousands of people just aren’t going to reach agreement about their entire area. A single street can have a much more sensible debate.

Our current planning system was designed for London’s population to shrink. It was never intended to allow the endless miles of unremarkable sprawling two-storey buildings to be turned into much more walkable and attractive streets with many more homes, like Bloomsbury. And it has never done so.

If you really want to end the housing crisis while making our streets more pleasant, we need to upgrade the planning system to something that will allow that.

Other options, as we suggested in our report, are to amend the rules to allow local people to opt for better green belt by building more homes, and allow much more devolution of planning law.

Anything radical enough to end the problem will probably have to take effect over time. Few people want a house-price crash. And there are easy ways to encourage communities to choose more homes by allowing them to benefit. But imposing homes all at once from the top down means that no neighbour will benefit from new homes. And then politicians wonder why there is a backlash. Much more powerful to let each community opt in over time, with strong and clear incentives to do so, so that your reform gathers momentum.

There is no reason why we shouldn’t give local people more power to make their existing streets and places better. We are encouraged to see Theresa May, Sajid Javid and Dominic Raab express good intentions. There are popular, easy ways to end our housing crisis. It’s time for government to start using them.

John Myers is co-founder of London YIMBY, a grassroots campaign to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.