Notes on an oligopoly: What did we learn from the Lords' report on the housing crisis?

The good old days. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

House of Lords select committee reports are not always the most the riveting of reads. Friday’s, however, from the economic affairs committee was the exception to the rule.

“Building more homes” is a truly devastating assault on recent Whitehall orthodoxy regarding housebuilding, and reveals in great detail much of what has been going wrong. Many of the points contained in the report have been made before – but not often with the authority and heft of a cross-party parliamentary committee.

It is also brilliantly timed (more luck than judgement, one supposes) given that we have a new prime minister and a new communities & local government secretary. If Theresa May and Sajid Javid want to finally get to grips with the endemic undersupply of new homes, they would do well to start with this report.

Here are some of the highlights:

England needs 300,000 homes a year – not 200,000

The government’s commitment to building 1m homes by 2020 (equivalent to 200,000 a year) will not be enough to meet future demand and tackle the backlog after years of undersupply. “To meet that demand and have a moderating effect on house prices, at least 300,000 homes a year need to be built for the foreseeable future,” the committee says. “Otherwise the average age of a first time buyer will continue to rise.”

Note too that the government is nowhere near hitting even 200,000 a year. Completions last year were just 155,000, just over half what is now recommended.

The large housebuilders restrict output to optimise profits

Private developers alone have neither the ability nor the motivation to build all of the homes we need. The housebuilding market is “oligopolistic”: its business model is to restrict the volume of housebuilding in order to maximise profits.

The government’s reliance on the private sector to meet its housebuilding targets is therefore misguided. “To achieve its target the government must recognise the inability of the private sector, as it is currently incentivised, to build the number of homes needed,” the peers say.


Land hoarding should be penalised to stimulate quicker building

There is also too big a gap between the number of planning permissions granted and the number of homes which are built. Councils should therefore be given the power to tax developments that are not completed within an agreed timeframe. 

“We recommend that local authorities are granted the power to levy council tax on developments that are not completed within a set time period,” the report argues. “This time period should be negotiated when planning consent is sought and be varied according to the size and complexity of a development.”

Local authorities should be allowed to borrow build social housing

The government is too fixated on home ownership at the expense of other tenures, and the current cap on council borrowing to invest in social housebuilding is “arbitrary” and should be scrapped.

The committee points to the government’s recent abandonment of its target to achieve a fiscal surplus in 2019-20 and the current low cost of borrowing. “There is no set limit on the amount a local authority can borrow to build a swimming pool,” it notes. “The same should apply to housing.”

Councils should also be encouraged to enter partnerships with housing associations, whose efforts to build more homes have been undermined by reductions in social rents.

Public land is not being released quickly enough

There is surplus public sector land enough in London for at least 130,000 homes – across England there could be enough for 2m. But the government’s efforts to release this for residential development have so far been “ineffective”.

The report recommends that a senior Cabinet minister should be put in charge of this process in future, and the National Infrastructure Commission given responsibility for keeping tabs on the number of homes that are actually built on it. Importantly, the requirement to achieve the best possible market price – often the cause of delay – should be “relaxed”, the committee says.

 

How likely is the government to adopt any of these ideas? On Monday, in her last speech before becoming prime minister, Theresa May spoke of the need to do “far more” to build more homes, which sounds like she may be amenable to a change of strategy. It is not difficult to imagine her getting much more tough on the release of public sector land. And there have been hints already that the new chancellor, Philip Hammond, might be prepared to borrow to invest in infrastructure.

The biggest challenge will come from the major housebuilders, and their many hangers on in the housing and planning industry, who will fiercely resist any effort to make them build faster than they are already. There are many interests vested in the status quo. Whether they are overcome may depend, in the end, on Mrs May’s level of determination.

Daniel Bentley is editorial director of the think tank Civitas and the author of “The Housing Question: Overcoming the shortage of homes”. He tweets @danielbentley

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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