Housebuilders' shares are tanking. Now is the time for the government to build a million homes

A screen showing a crashing stock market. Admittedly, it's from Nanjing, in 2007; but we liked the picture, so. Image: Getty.

Among the biggest losers in the stock market turmoil that has followed last week’s Brexit vote have been Britain’s housebuilders. Persimmon fell by a staggering 40 per cent on Friday morning, and closed the day 27.6 per cent down.

The scale of the selling reflects the building industry’s acute sensitivity to market sentiment, and the fragility of its business model, which is dependent on already-high demand being maintained indefinitely.

With a period of house price stagnation and even decline now highly likely, builders are in trouble. Having purchased several years’ supply of land in a rising market, they are now going to struggle to turn as big a profit on new home sales as buyers revise down what they are prepared to pay – or hold off buying altogether.

That is going to happen almost immediately – there is already anecdotal evidence of buyers reducing their offer price or pulling out of sales – in response to the sudden sense of economic uncertainty. But it will be very much intensified if there is an economic downturn, wages are squeezed and, eventually, interest rates go up to combat inflation.

That house prices may fall is not in itself a bad thing: many people, including myself, have been willing this for quite some time. House prices have been racing away from wages for much too long now, benefiting existing homeowners at the expense of future generations, and a correction is well overdue.

The difficulty is what comes next, which by now we know well: housebuilding output will fall as developers turn off the taps. This has been the construction cycle that has repeated over and over since the 1970s. Builders only build on any scale in a rising market. As soon as demand falls, and prices drop, build-out rates plummet while developers wait for confidence (meaning: prices) to return. The long-run trajectory of house prices is only ever upwards.


It is this cycle that has led us into the housing disaster that we find ourselves in 2016, with a shortage of homes, high housing costs, declining levels of home ownership and the rise of the rentier landlord.

Now is the moment, if ever there was one, for this cycle to be broken, finally and completely. For the government to introduce a package of counter-cyclical support for housebuilding that floods the market and holds prices down in perpetuity. Without it, the government’s ambition of building a million new homes by 2020 – which was always improbable and in any case insufficient – is now dead in the water.

The new policy should consist of a public sector building programme which, as a minimum, guarantees the building of 100,000 homes a year over and above the output of private builders. It will probably need to involve local authorities taking over the sites that developers have in the pipeline but may now become economically unviable.

The big housebuilders will have to reset their expectations of future price growth and probably take a hit on the landbanks they have already built. This will be hard on them, but no investment is risk free and the public interest must come first.

The public sector homes could be either made available for social housing, and the building costs recouped over the coming decades in rent (Capital Economics has modelled such a scenario). A cheaper, and therefore more politically palatable approach, could be to sell them into owner-occupation, with most of the costs recouped immediately and reinvested year after year; I calculated in a recent report that this could be achieved with a single upfront investment of £15-20bn. Realistically, we need a combination of social rent and owner-occupied housing – and so some hybrid of these two scenarios would probably be most appropriate.

This approach would not only begin to make inroads into the country’s housing shortage; it would also provide what should be a welcome fiscal stimulus as the economy enters a rocky period. There are expectations of a further cut in interest rates in the short term and possibly a new round of quantitative easing. But the levers of monetary policy have been worked almost to their limits already and the cost of borrowing is at a record low – 10-year gilts hitting less than 1 per cent this morning. The Treasury should take advantage while it can.

The government has a lot to contemplate right now. A housebuilding programme should not be seen as peripheral to the challenge of the coming months, but central to it.

Daniel Bentley is editorial director at the think tank Civitas. He tweets @danielbentley.

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On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.