Yes, Britain does have a housing crisis – and building more will fix it

Could put more houses there, lads. Image: Getty.

Most people accept that Britain is in the middle of a housing crisis. Measured by the diminutive size of our homes or the inflated size of our rents relative to other countries, it’s clear that we’re doing something seriously wrong. Most spectacularly, although less robustly, the ratio of house prices to incomes has reached an incredible 14.2 in London, according to Hometrack.

Meanwhile, a small group take the contrarian view that, actually, there is no housing crisis and, if there is, building more homes won’t solve it. The most notable is Ian Mulheirn of Capital Economics, who recently explained his thoughts in a CapX blog.

He makes two good points and one that’s worthwhile, but ultimately irrelevant. The two good points are, firstly, that there is no UK-wide housing crisis. There are plenty of towns where rents and house prices are affordable for people on average incomes. Flattish national rents over the last ten years mean that London’s higher rents must be balanced by falling rents elsewhere.

The second good point is that house prices measure more than just the cost of consuming housing. They are also affected by expectations of the future and prices of other assets and, indeed, money itself, in the form of interest rates. Better to look at rents, which only measure the price of housing consumption during a fixed period.

His worthwhile yet irrelevant point is that household growth has been slower than official projections, upon which the central plans for housing supply have been made. These projections were made by assuming that the fall in average household size in the years to 2001 would continue; in fact, it flattened out. So household numbers only rose in line with population, instead of faster.

But this point is ultimately irrelevant, for two reasons. First, part of the reason why households have stopped shrinking is because of housing shortages. Adults are living with parents for longer and sharing more frequently rather than living alone, because high prices are prompting people to economise on housing consumption.

Secondly, prices and rents offer a far more sophisticated guide to the demand for housing (and its relative shortage of supply) than comparing crude official statistics on the number of housing units and households.

The main problem is that we have too little housing in the economically dynamic places where jobs are available. The fact that housing is cheap in places hundreds of miles from where the majority of job vacancies are based is of little relevance. The fact that councils in depressed areas welcome housing developments, because of the construction jobs they provide and the prospect of regeneration, makes similarly little difference.

Crudely put, we have a marked shortage of homes in London, particularly inner and west London, where job vacancies are most common and highly paid.

Ian points to low rental yields as evidence of a lack of a problem with supply and demand for housing in London. This is true, but the yield is the wrong measure for the question he has in mind. The price of a residential property includes the value of the artificial scarcity of land imposed by restrictions.

A better measure would be to adjust the rental incomes by the additional rent possible if commercial considerations were the only limit on a developer, instead of planning restrictions. Potential yields are enormous. It’s not for nothing that developers try so hard to get permission for extra storeys on their buildings, accused of skull-duggery by the NIMBY groups who oppose them.

And these substantial potential yields indicate that there is indeed a major problem with supply and demand for places to live. Rents in London are the highest in the world (or near enough, depending on your index). They wouldn’t be for long, if developers and landowners were allowed to respond to those enormous potential profits by supplying the homes that high rents indicate we need.

More housing where it’s needed would provide much wider benefits, too, than just cheaper housing for those already living in housing unaffordability hotspots. More of us would be able to move to where the jobs are, not just in London but also other cities like Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and York.

That would reduce demand and therefore housing costs in the places where people move from, but it would also improve labour markets, removing a block on people shifting their labour into more highly-valued (and highly-paid) uses.

And the knock-on effects on commercial property would further improve productivity. Drawing on work by economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti, the pro-housing group London YIMBY has suggested that allowing enough homes to be built where they’re needed could increase national income by 30 per cent.

Yes, we do have a housing crisis. Letting homes be built where they’re needed will fix it. And doing so might also offer at least a partial answer to our "productivity puzzle", too.

Whether or not today’s housing white paper will do enough to tackle the NIMBYism that is at the heart of the crisis is another matter entirely.

Rory Meakin is research fellow at The Taxpayers Alliance.

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Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”

Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

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