To solve the housing crisis, we need a National Housing Fund

Some houses, of exactly the sort that you will never own. Image: Getty.

Welcome to the housing crisis, part 4526. So far this month, we have learnt that planning permission has been granted for 320,000 homes but they have not been built; the housing market is slowing down; and people are spending more of their incomes on housing than ever before. But even with the scale of the problem, and a hamstrung government, things don’t have to be this way.

Housing is a significant challenge for our cities, a major solution to which is getting more homes built. It’s not surprising that all of the newly elected metro mayors are prioritising it – from Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, who wants to build a new small town to meet local housing demand, to James Palmer in the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, who put affordable housing at the centre of his manifesto, and Andy Burnham, who is refocusing the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework to tackle the housing crisis. Efforts by the new mayors are welcome – and if central government gives city regions more powers and flexibility, they will be able to make a much bigger contribution to meeting local housing needs.

But all cities exist within a wider national context. Planning permission is being granted but homes are not being built in all parts of the country. Giving local authorities the powers to deal with that is likely to take years, especially when no party has a majority in parliament to drive through new legislation.

The business model of private housebuilders does not vary from city to city: homes will only be built at the rate at which developers think they will be able to sell. Moreover, a market downturn that starts in London is likely to mean fewer homes are built in all parts of the country.

What we urgently need from government is action at the national level to, first, speed up new development: those 320,000 phantom homes would make a real difference around the country if they got built. Second, investment needs to be focused on getting the market working better over the long-term. That means supporting smaller builders so that we have a more diverse marketplace with more people in the business of building.

Third, we need to build the right types of homes. Building more homes for sale won’t help those who will not be able to afford a deposit anyway. Building more homes at reasonable rents will help people more quickly.


That’s where ResPublica’s new report comes in. Working with leading housing associations, we are proposing a National Housing Fund that would invest substantially (£10bn annually for ten years) in new homes for rent: we project at least 40,000 new homes a year could be built. These would be available under family friendly long-term tenancies, at reasonable and predictable rents.

It could buy homes on existing planned but stalled developments to reduce that number of phantom homes; and would support small developers to bring forward plans for more new homes by providing them with certainty of sale. Each year some tenants, enabled to save by paying reasonable rents, would be offered opportunities to buy their homes; proceeds would be reinvested in building replacements.

How can we afford this major new investment? After the 10 years of investment, housing associations would start paying back off the government’s investment.

In the meantime, our research finds that an investment of this kind is not only realistic: it’s highly desirable. The fund itself could be self-sustaining. Rents would more than cover costs of the borrowing and of managing the properties. And there would be significant wider social and economic benefits – 180,000 new jobs and £3.4bn in tax increases and welfare savings per year.

This is all about adding to existing housebuilding and policy initiatives. If cities or local authorities wanted to work with private sector developers, or build homes themselves, the fund would be there to fund it. With all parties in their manifestos committed to investing in new housing, parliamentary arithmetic need not get in the way of delivering this much-needed and overdue investment in housing.

Edward Douglas is policy & projects manager at the think tank Respublica.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.