Where are the right places for England's new homes?

Some houses. Image: Getty.

A housing white paper is due in the New Year, one which communities secretary Sajid Javid promises will get “more of the right homes built in the right places”. But where are the right places?

As we know, the housing shortage is not felt equally everywhere. Regional price growth has varied enormously since the crash. But even within regions there are large differences between areas. Nor can these problems be expressed purely in terms of house prices, either, because prices are determined as much by economic demand and speculation as anything else.

To try to establish a sense of the under-supply of new housing at a local level, we compared last year’s output against expected household growth, which is what you might say – not without a few caveats, admittedly – is the rate at which new homes are thought to be needed.

Nationally, the net supply of housing in 2015-16 was about 90 per cent of the annual household growth rate that is projected by government statisticians for the period 2019-39. But that national average disguises very large variations between areas that are producing more than enough homes, and others that are falling a long way short.

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Worse, those areas that are expected to grow most rapidly over the next 25 years are, on the whole, already performing least well against their household formation projections. London, which taken as a whole is the fastest-growing area of the country, had new homes equivalent to only 55 per cent of its long-term household growth rate. Only three boroughs (if you include the City of London; not technically a borough and tiny in population terms) built above that rate.

The next 30 fastest growing areas of the country after London fared similarly: only five were keeping up with their household formation projections, and 21 were not even doing as well as the national average of 90 per cent. London plus the next 30 areas that are expected to see the most household growth over the next 25 years – collectively accounting for 48 per cent of it – supplied just 36 per cent of new housing last year.

This was not confined to the South-East, either, but was an issue in places that are the focus of economic growth strategies, such as Greater Manchester (Bury, Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford and Wigan), which supplied new homes equivalent to 68 per cent of its long-term growth rate. The West Midlands (Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton) managed just a little bit more, at 71 per cent.


This raises a variety of issues. The most obvious one, perhaps, is how do we ensure those areas with an under-supply build more homes? This is a many-faceted problem, of course, probably requiring local investigation, although quite a few people have justifiably pointed out a strong correlation between the red patches on this map – denoting a shortfall in housing – and the green belt.

But it also raises important questions about whether those areas that are failing so badly to keep up with household growth will ever keep up with it – and whether the answer doesn’t lie in trying to draw off demand to other areas.

In some case this might require only local movement. There are examples already in, say, Oxfordshire, which has a county-wide surplus of homes measured against household formation, despite a deficit in Oxford itself. This kind of thing lies at the heart of the planning system in the “duty to cooperate”, in which local authorities are meant to share the burden of household growth across boundaries.

But there are limits to this, as can be seen in London and the broad swathes of the South-East in which there are hardly any areas that are keeping up with their own household growth, never mind their neighbours’ too.

And so it may also require a degree of regional rebalancing, from London and the South-East in particular and towards some of those areas that are coping better already with household growth. This may happen naturally to some extent, as a result of these very pressures and their impact on house prices. But for demand to shift on a bigger, more meaningful scale would require substantial regional jobs growth, and the transport infrastructure to support it.

Where are “the right places” for new homes, then? Perhaps the more important question is: where do we want them to be?

Daniel Bentley is editorial director at the think tank Civitas and tweets @danielbentley. His briefing paper “Housing supply and household growth, national and local” was published this week.

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Pembrokeshire's innovative new eco-hamlet is great. But it should be the size of a city

The eco hamlet. Image: Western Solar.

The opening in January 2017 of an “eco-hamlet” for council house tenants in West Wales is great news. I have nothing but praise for a development which builds houses with a low carbon footprint, using locally grown wood, to make homes which are well insulated and powered by solar energy. It was also quick to build, with large sections being made in a factory and then assembled on site. And it was relatively cheap – at around £70,000 to £100,000 per building, it is certainly comparable to the costs of more conventional builds.

These houses are an inspiration to the construction industry and an aspiration for the home owner. After all, who wouldn’t like to live in a house that had yearly utility bills of £200, rather than the national average of £1,500?

So the problem is not the six wonderful solar houses at Glanrhyd, Pembrokeshire, or the lucky people who will get to live in them (and enjoy shared use of an electric car). The problem is that we’ve seen all of this before – but nothing changes. What we really need is far, far more of them.

Pentre Solar in Pembrokeshire. Image: Western Solar.

I’ve been involved in sustainable construction for nearly 25 years and seen many inspirational developments like Glanrhyd. There’s Julian Marsh’s home in Nottingham, Susan Roaf’s Oxford Ecohouse and the Hockerton Housing Project, to name but a few. The list is long.


Yet while many individuals continue to build these innovative and inspirational structures, we have a construction industry which still responds to these buildings with disdain. One executive from a large well-known house building company told me recently: “This is a new, expensive and untested technology. We just can’t risk building something so new with all the risks to the consumer and at a higher cost.”

But the situation is even worse than the disdain from the mainstream construction industry. Rather than being welcomed, the latest versions of these sustainable buildings are challenged at every turn. The initial response to the Welsh eco-hamlet plans were concerns about the materials, the technology and the design. The houses at Glanrhyd then had more than 20 planning conditions placed upon them. The CEO of Western Solar, the company behing the hamlet, freely admits that nearly half of their research budget went on solving problems they encountered along the way.

Thinking and building big

So it seems this kind of development just isn’t celebrated enough. There is a general atmosphere of mistrust from construction professionals. It is seen as too complex, too expensive, too risky. Yet there are positive reactions, too. Welsh politician Lesley Griffiths had this to say about the new houses in Glanrhyd:

This scheme ticks so many boxes. We need more houses, we need more energy efficiency, we want to help people with fuel poverty. It’s been really good to hear how they have sourced local products. It’s great they’re using local people to build the houses.

Surely we need to take the eco-technology we have and start rolling it out on a much larger scale. To do so would be a massive step in meeting the significant housing shortage (an estimated 125,000 extra new houses are needed every year). It would also address the disrepair of our current housing stock, and help refit the millions of houses in good repair but requiring improved performance in order to achieve the government’s 2050 carbon reduction target.

We must not forget that the 2050 Climate Change target is not some arbitrary political policy, but one based on the environmental challenge facing all of us. We need to play our part in slowing down the speed of climate change and adapting to the changing natural, social and economic environment.

The solar houses in Pembrokeshire are wonderful. But until we start building huge numbers of buildings with similar credentials, we are just celebrating a cottage industry rather than restructuring our urban environment for an uncertain future.The Conversation

John Grant is senior lecturer in natural and built environment at Sheffield Hallam University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.