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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Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

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