To create housing for the many not the few, we should reform Britain’s land market

Jeremy Corbyn points at a house. Image: Getty.

Housing policy was centre stage last week when Jeremy Corbyn unveiled the Labour party’s Green Paper on social housing. With commitments to build 100,000 affordable homes a year and introduce a new definition of affordable housing, the party’s plans certainly don’t lack ambition.

These ambitious commitments are long overdue. Housing supply has not met housing need for decades with house price growth far exceeding wage growth for years. There are over a million families on the waiting list for social housing, and rough sleeping has increased by 169 per cent since 2010. The list goes on.

At the heart of the housing crisis is a set of political choices which have rarefied the concept of housing as an asset rather than a place to call home. Central to this process has been the marginalisation of the role of the state in the housing market.

Since the Second World War, we have only ever met housing need with a significant contribution from the public sector. Between 1948 and 1978, local authorities built an average of 90,000 council homes a year, but by the 1990s it was next to nothing. Housing associations have made a growing contribution – but they’ve not been able to fill the gap. Research by IPPR last year showed that 92 per cent of local authorities were failing to build the number of affordable homes their areas needed.

Concerted action is needed, and the role of the state is crucial. It should begin with much greater investment in affordable housing and the freeing of councils to build the homes their communities need. Arbitrary rules introduced by the current government prevent councils from borrowing prudently against future rental streams to build council homes: these should be scrapped as Labour recommended.

The justification for these limits is that it will add to Public Sector Net Debt (PSND) the UK’s measure of government debt. The main international measure of net debt – the General Government Gross Debt (GGGD) – excludes debts of public corporations involved in such activities. We should adopt the international standards, and free ourselves up to allow greater investment in housing – just as our global competitors do.


Investing to build more affordable homes is critical, but ensuring they are affordable in the first place is just as important. That’s why Labour’s proposal to scrap the current definition of affordable housing is vital. Under the current definition, ‘affordability’ is linked to prices, not wages. As a result, research by IPPR has found that a couple with a child on low incomes, one working full-time and the other part-time, would find many ‘affordable’ homes unaffordable. In places like London the problem is even more acute. We must return to an affordable housing measure that is linked to incomes, not market prices.

Perhaps the most crucial, and under reported, aspect of Labour’s plans was a small section on an “English Sovereign Land Trust” which will allow local authorities to buy land at cheaper prices to build affordable homes.

It is here, through intervention in the land market, that the state could have the biggest impact – not to just build more affordable homes, but to make all new homes built more affordable. The price of land has risen exorbitantly over the past few decades, and in high demand areas is the most significant cost of building a home. Yet the increases in the value of the land often has very little to do with the actions of a landowner and everything to do with the awarding of planning permission by a local council on behalf of their local community.

Under our current system we have few mechanisms to capture that value effectively for the community, with the majority of it going to the landowner or developer. Moreover, we rely on private developers and land speculators to bring this land to market, meaning they carry all the risk but also get most of the reward.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In other countries they have far more effective ways of dealing with these issues, either by using more effective property and land taxes which help capture land value increases, or through planning mechanisms which reduce the cost of land for development, or help capture the land value for the community.

Labour’s green paper yesterday was a huge stride forward in setting out substantive proposals to tackle the housing crisis. But on land reform, there is scope to be bolder and go further to ensure that affordable housing really is available ‘for the many’, rather than the preserve of the few.

Luke Murphy is associate director for the environment, housing and infrastructure at the IPPR.

 
 
 
 

Why exactly do Britain’s rail services to the cities of the South West keep getting cut off?

You see the problem? The line through Dawlish. Image: Geof Sheppard/Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve ever looked at some picturesque photos of British railways, perhaps in a specialist railway magazine – we’re not judging – then you’ve probably seen images of the South West Railway sea wall, with trains running tantalisingly close to the sea, either framed by blue skies and blue water or being battered by dramatic waves, depending on the region’s notoriously changeable weather.

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and open since the 1840s, the line was placed so close to the water to avoid the ruinous cost of tunnelling through the South Devon hills. From Dawlish Warren to Teignmouth the line is, with the odd interruption, exposed to the sea, affording the striking images so beloved of rail photographers. Its exposed placement also inevitably leads to speed limitations, closure and damage to the infrastructure. This would be a matter of purely local interest were it not for the fact that the sea wall is an unavoidable link in rail routes to the South West.

Main line trains run from London Waterloo and Paddington down to the Devon hub of Exeter St Davids, before continuing on to Plymouth, Truro and other destinations on the peninsula. Trains leaving St Davids reach the bottleneck very quickly, following the river Exe and its estuary, before dipping behind the sand dunes and emerging on to the sea wall.

What happens to the track at the small seaside towns of Dawlish Warren and Dawlish therefore has an impact on the whole region. South Devon and Cornwall are inaccessible by rail when the sea wall is temporarily closed or, as happened in January 2014, when storms breached the sea wall altogether, damaging it so severely it took weeks to repair.

While it’s easy to understand the economic logic of building the sea wall in the first place, unsurprisingly the economics of maintaining the damn thing have proven less compelling. The sea wall is considered to be, per mile, the most expensive stretch of Network Rail’s network to maintain. It’s also baffling to modern eyes why the main line rail services for a whole region would flow through such a vulnerable bottle neck.

The Devon rail network. Image: Travel Devon.

As with so many oddities of the British rail system, these perversities emerged from the rapid change that came in the mid 20th century through war, nationalisation and Dr Beeching.

The need for a Dawlish Avoiding Line was identified as early the 1930s. This would have diverted from the existing route at Exminster, and rejoined the line between Teignmouth and Newton Abbot, passing through Dawlish inland. Tweaks to the plan were made, but by 1939 construction was under way, only to be suspended when war broke out. Work on the project did not resume after the war, and when the Great Western Railway became part of the nationalised British Railways it was not a priority. The land for the Dawlish Avoiding Line was later sold by British Rail and has subsequently been built on, so that was that.

In the 1960s, Dr Beeching’s axe fell on rail routes across Devon, including the lines through North Devon that had provided an alternative rail route through the county. Those closed lines have also been extensively built on or converted to other uses, leaving a single main line through Devon, and rendering the sea wall unavoidable.

In recent years the condition of the sea wall has become increasingly precari


ous. That’s not only due to storm damage to the wall itself, but also due to the potential for erosion of cliffs overlooking the rail line, resulting in falling rocks. While this has been an ongoing issue since... well, since the sea wall was opened over 150 years ago, the storm of 4 February 2014 brought the matter to national attention. The visual of twisted rails hanging out into empty space illustrated the problem in a way pages of reports on the precarious nature of the line never could.

An army of Network Rail workers descended on Dawlish to get the line re-opened within two months. But repairing the damage hasn’t resolved the base problem, and climate change increases the likelihood of further major storm damage. In October 2018 the line was hastily closed for weekend repairs when storms resulted in a six foot hole appearing under the tracks near Teignmouth.

Supportive noises of varying intensity and occasional oblique funding commitments have come from government in the last five years, and investigations and consultations have been conducted by both Network Rail and the Peninsula Rail Task Force, a group set up by local councils in the wake of February 2014. Proposals currently on the table include Network Rail’s plan to extend a section of the sea wall further out to sea, away from the crumbling cliffs, and reopening the Okehampton line across Dartmoor to provide an alternative rail route between Exeter and Plymouth. 

But in spite of talk about investment and grand plans, no major work is underway or funded, with Network Rail continuing their work maintaining and repairing the existing line, and the situation seems unlikely to change soon.

Massive spending on rail infrastructure in the South West is a hard Westminster sell, especially in the Brexit-addled political climate of the last few years. And with the parliamentary map of the region dominated by blue there’s been little political will to challenge the vague commitments of government. One of the South West’s few Labour MPs, Exeter’s Ben Bradshaw, is particularly damning of the failure of Tory MPs to put pressure on the government, using a recent column for Devon Live to describe them as “feeble”.

But regardless of the political will to solve the problems of rail in the South West, barring a string of unusually gentle winters, the issue isn’t going away soon. If the South West is to be an accessible and successful part of the UK, then it needs stable rail infrastructure that can survive whatever the weather throws at it.