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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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.