Councils are granting enough planning permissions – so why aren't we building housing?

The good old days. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

One of the central housing objectives of David Cameron’s government was to liberalise the planning system and increase the amount of land that was permissioned for residential development.

To be fair, in that respect, it didn’t do too bad a job. The number of units given planning permission in England increased from 176,209 in 2011 to 261,644 in 2015. The planning system is now yielding enough permissions to meet the roughly 250,000 new homes many housing economists think we need to keep up with household growth.

This doesn’t mean they are all in precisely the right places – although London’s permissions are running at around 50,000 a year, according to the latest figures from the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG), more or less in line with what the capital is thought to need. Nor does it mean that they are all necessarily in a position to be built out the very next day.

But, still, the number of plots approved for residential development in a given year has increased dramatically, by 48 per cent between 2011 and 2015.

Here’s the thing, though: this has not been matched by anything like a corresponding increase in building activity. Starts have risen over the same period by just 26 per cent, from 110,820 in 2011 to only 139,680 in 2015. If we’re ever to increase housing supply to the required levels, this growing shortfall between permissions and starts will need to be addressed and overcome.

Now, the Home Builders Federation (HBF) dismisses the starts figures as unreliable. And it is true that they probably underestimate activity somewhat  usually by a few thousand units, sometimes possibly by up to 20,000 units.

But even 20,000 (and I’m being really generous there) is nothing compared with the gap that has emerged between new planning permissions and building starts – a gap which was 65,389 in 2011 and, by 2015, have grown to a massive 121,964.

Sure, there is a little bit of give in the figures, but the trend is clear: homes simply aren’t being built as quickly as they are being approved by planners.

Another way of measuring this is to look at the completions numbers from the government’s other housebuilding data series, the more reliable “Net supply of housing”; this is published each November and is the HBF’s preferred source of figures.

Of course, completions take rather longer than start’s, so we have to allow for a degree of timelag: builders reckon homes take two to threee years to proceed from planning permission to being ready for occupation.

But even allowing for that, the same discrepancy occurs. There were 195,300 homes approved in 2012, for example; three years later there were still only 155,080 completions. Whichever we cut this, whether we look at starts or completions, it is clear that building activity has not responded proportionately to the rapid increase in land ripe for development.

The gap between permissions and building activity that has emerged since 2011 can be appreciated at a glance from the following graph. Note too that, pre-crash, while there was a gap back then, it was much tighter.

So what’s behind this? To be fair to developers, many of these planning permissions may not be in their possession. There has long been an issue of non-building landowners (speculators, historic landowners, public sector agencies, and so on) sitting tight while their holdings rise in value. This has been well documented in London by the consultants Molior.

However, Molior has charted a decline not an increase in the number of unbuilt planning permissions being held by non-builders over recent years, from 45 per cent in 2012 to 32 per cent in 2014.

So that still leaves two-thirds of unimplemented permissions in the capital in the hands of developers. So why are they not throwing up houses? Is there not a shortage of homes in this country?

Unfortunately the private housebuilding industry does not cater to housing need: it caters to effective demand. The building activity depicted in the graph above (minus 20,000 or so housing association starts each year) reflects not how many houses could be built, but how many willing buyers there are ready to purchase a new-build property at current market prices.

Developers do not build out sites as quickly as they physically can. They build them out as quickly as people are prepared to buy them – at the current market price or higher. As Philip Barnes, group land and planning director at Barratt Developments, recently observed:

The reality is that housebuilders, as return-on-capital businesses are not able to build our products at a pace faster than our customers will purchase them, at the market value.

“We could in theory cut prices to speed up sales – but we have based our land purchase price on the estimated market values so we don’t have this option in practice.”

Does this amount to landbanking? Developers say it doesn’t.

But, whatever we might call this process, the effect is that they are not releasing land with houses on it back into the market until it has reached the price they need to achieve to turn a profit. They are acting perfectly rationally in the present market – if I were a housebuilder I would do the same – but this is not an arrangement which is compatible with dramatically increasing the number of homes to plug a housing shortage.

Addressing this dynamic is something that Theresa May’s government must prioritise if it is to make any real headway on housing. There are various policies that have been uggested for tackling it. Opening up the market to SME builders by increasing the number of smaller development sites would be a good start, although it is unlikely this would make quite the difference that is needed.


A bolder route would be for the government or councils to directly commission builders (including, again, many SMEs) to put up the houses we need, and so bypass the private sector; but this will involve spending a good chunk of money.

Short of that, private developers will have to be incentivised to build more quickly. This will probably mean giving – and requiring – local authorities the power to impose contractual obligations about the pace of development when granting planning permission in the first place. It will mean creating a framework within which developers do not bid each other up for every plot of land to such a price that they cannot afford to build it out at speed.

If it is clear and explicit enough, the local authority’s requirements for all developments could be used by developers to signal to landowners that they cannot pay above a certain price for the land. Land prices, the repositary for most of the inflated value in housing, would be anchored.

Don’t get me wrong: we are still going to need lots more land, in perpetuity, to keep the housing pipeline going. This is not a Nimbys’ charter. It will still be a big task to ensure enough new homes are approved by planners – and in the right places – to meet the rapidly growing need for housing.

But the principal challenge right now is not increasing the numbers of new planning permissions. It’s getting those that are granted built out much more quickly.

Daniel Bentley is editorial director at the think tank Civitas and tweets @danielbentley. His briefing paper “Planning approvals vs housebuilding activity, 2006-2015” was published this week. 

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Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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