Reforming the land market can help deliver 300,000 homes per year

Housing in London. Image: Getty.

The government’s new housebuilding target of 300,000 net additional homes per year for England will require new build completions to rise from around 184,000 to somewhere close to 280,000 units a year. To achieve this, the government needs to tackle three key issues related to the current dysfunctional land market.

Firstly, the requirement to bid for land parcels makes it prohibitively expensive for smaller scale builders and housing associations, as well as cash-strapped local authorities, to acquire land. Second, too many planning permissions are held by non-house builders due to their ability to profit from rising land values. Thirdly, lower levels of infrastructure investment have meant that fewer large scale sites are opened up, and the ability to claw back only a quarter of the uplift in land values means there are insufficient funds to invest in new infrastructure.

The land market is disproportionately impacted by the compensation rules set out by Parliament. When the compensation rules assume that land will be awarded planning permission in the future, then land will trade at levels close to residential value.

But if the rules do not award compensation for prospective planning permission, as in the Netherlands, then market values will trade at levels close to agricultural or industrial land values. This is why the Netherlands has been able to build two thirds more housing units than Britain since the mid-1970s.

One approach to reforming the land market is to amend the 1961 Land Compensation Act and remove “prospective planning permission” from the compensation arrangements. This would have a direct impact on land prices, causing market values to fall much closer to use value: there would no longer be an incentive to hoard and speculate on land. This market-based solution would improve the efficiency of the land market and reduce the need for wasteful government intervention, such as spending nearly 10 times more on housing benefit than Germany as a percentage of GDP.

This reform would enable private sector housebuilders to expand capacity: they would no longer have to manage the risk of the value of land through time. Small housebuilders would no longer be at a disadvantage, and self-build units could dramatically increase as long as local plans allocated sufficient plots.


Such a reform of the land market would also enable the rise in land values to fund large scale investment across the country, increasing investment by as much as £9.3bn per year across England alone. This rise in land values would permit groups of local authorities to borrow from the capital market to invest in new infrastructure, with the revenue streams from the uplift in land values paying back the bond holders.

Data collected and analysed by the Centre for Progressive Policy during its in-depth analysis of the Oxford to Cambridge corridor suggests that the level of housebuilding can be raised by 8,200 units per annum, based on annual investments of £790m excluding land costs. This analysis can be used to help assess how many incremental units might be built given an additional £9.3bn of investment. Although land values differ across the country, the Centre found that the Birmingham and Leeds city regions generate similar levels of land value capture to the Oxford to Cambridge corridor.  

Using this analysis, the Centre estimates that the incremental revenues unlocked through land reform could pay for the necessary infrastructure for an additional 96,500 units per annum, a quarter of which would be in the Core Cities.

This would come very close to meeting the government’s new target of 300,000 units per year. Moreover, 36 per cent of these units would be affordable and fully paid for through this mechanism, which amounts to an additional 35,000 units per year.

Far from being a leap into the unknown, these reforms would actually be a return to how Britain used to build houses. The popular garden cities, new towns and infrastructure projects built in the first half of the 20th century were possible because they used the uplift in land values to fund the projects.

The housing white paper and the Conservative Party’s 2017 general election manifesto recognised the importance of land value capture to boost housebuilding. The government now needs to act and introduce market forces to an opaque and inefficient land market, which remains the major obstacle to building the houses the country so desperately needs.

Thomas Aubrey is the author of a recent report on housing and the land market for the Centre for Progressive Policy.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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