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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Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.