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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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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