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

 
 
 
 

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.