How many new homes did England build last year? The housing minister doesn't seem to know

Brandon Lewis probably thinks you need a 12% deposit. Image: Getty.

How many homes are being built in England? Not enough, certainly.

But as the government sets about increasing house building levels, it is important to have a good idea, not just of where we need to get to but where we are at the moment. And I’m not sure the housing minister, Brandon Lewis, really knows where we are at the moment.

Mr Lewis has taken to claiming that there were 181,000 homes built last year. He has repeated this at least twice to my knowledge in the Commons – a fortnight ago in a debate about the Housing & Planning Bill (now an Act of Parliament), and yesterday outlining the newly-announced Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill – as well as in various Twitter conversations in recent weeks.

Taking this 181,000 figure at face value, we would be 60-70,000 homes a year short of what most housing economists reckon England needs just to keep up with household growth: to get ahead of demand, we would need even more. So even in a best-case scenario, the shortage is continuing to grow with every passing year (as it has been for at least a couple of decades now).

This is an important point to remember as ministers hail the improvements that have been made in house building levels in recent years: the backlog is still growing at a rate of at least 60-70,000 homes a year.

But that really is a best-case scenario, based on the 181,000 figure that Mr Lewis quotes. Where does this figure come from though? Despite his repeated claims that this is how many homes were “built”, it is no such thing.

Actually, it represents the gross supply of homes in 2014-15. This, crucially, includes not just homes that have been built, but the number created via a change of use from commercial property to residential, of which there were 20,650; and the number of homes created by subdividing existing homes, of which there were 4,950.

The actual number of new-build completions – that is, homes that have actually been built – was, according to the government’s own figures, just 155,080 in 2014-15. So the 181,000 figure that Mr Lewis starts with breaks down like this:

Now, you might argue that 181,000 is the important figure because that is how many homes were added to the housing stock last year. Except it isn’t, because this is the gross supply of homes we are talking about. It fails to take into account the number of demolitions that took place in the same year (many undertaken to make way for the new homes, too).

There were 10,610 demolitions in 2014-15, meaning that the actual increase in the housing stock, the net supply, was 170,690. This is how the minister’s 181,000 figure breaks down if we take out demolitions:

One would expect Mr Lewis to be reasonably well acquainted with that 170,690 figure because it is the headline finding in his department’s annual publication on the “Net supply of housing”, a publication which makes no mention of the 181,000 figure as far as I can see. It is certainly not one that is pushed to the front:

The 181,000 figure is not the only thing that is questionable about Mr Lewis’s repeated statements in this area. He claims too that it represents a 25 per cent increase in the number of homes built:

More than 181,000 homes were built last year… That is a 25 per cent rise last year alone.

But the gross supply figure of 181,000 represented only a 22 per cent rise on the previous year, from 148,670 to 181,300.

Perhaps then he’s talking about new-build completions at that point? No: they only rose by 19 per cent between 2013-14 and 2014-15, from 130,340 to 155,080.

What rose by 25 per cent last year was – as you can see plastered on the front of his department’s publication – the net supply figure, from 136,610 to 170,690. Yet this is not the data he is quoting when he talks of 181,000 homes being “built”.

One final point. As well as overstating how many homes are built, Mr Lewis is also fond of contrasting his 181,000 figure with home many homes were built in the year in which his Labour shadow John Healey was the housing minister (2009-10):

The number of new homes delivered in the past year was not as low as it was under the shadow minister… when it was just 88,000.

The contrast between 181,000 and 88,000 sounds extraordinary. But the 88,000 figure? This is not the gross supply figure (which was 161,200 in 2009-10). It is not the net supply figure (144,870). It is not even the new-build completions figure (124,200).

To find anything resembling 88,000 in this period one needs to look at a completely different dataset, Live Table 208 on house building starts (which housebuilders dislike, incidentally, because it tends to underestimate their output). This records 88,010 starts in 2008-9. Which was actually the year before Mr Healey was housing minister – he was local government minister at that point.

And if we use that data series to look at the government’s house building record last year? Then, the picture is not so flattering. There were still only 137,740 starts in 2014-15. That’s a year-on-year increase of a mere 2.7 per cent (that’s not a typo: two point seven) compared with 2013-14 when there were 134,110.

Confused? I think that might be the idea.

Daniel Bentley is editorial director of the think tank Civitas. He tweet as @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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