Sajid Javid wants to build? He should bulldoze the Green Belt

Tory MP and communities secretary Sajid Javid has thrown out a lot of vague promises on housing. Yesterday he suggested that the government might borrow billions to get new houses built. He says that it could use the money to build new infrastructure (meaning roads and public amenities, presumably) to encourage new developments. And he is reportedly looking at a £100 billion Treasury-backed scheme to help people ‘rent-to-buy’.

The Tories have been making a lot of noise about housing recently. At the recent Conservative Party conference, prime minister Theresa May earmarked £2 billion for building new council houses. (Council-house building has had something of a revival over the last year, with Manchester and other councils announcing new building programmes.) This investment, commentators reckoned, would pay for 25,000 additional homes.

Similarly, at the Labour Party conference last month, shadow housing minister John Healey laid out a plan to boost council and housing-association building with new central-government-funded grants. He promised 100,000 homes built over 10 years, while Javid has said that his scheme could lead to 500,000 being built over the same period.

But these are empty promises. There is no clear plan for how such targets would be met. Housing ministers have been promising action on the short supply of new homes for decades, since John Selwyn Gummer first identified a shortfall of four million homes in the Eighties. And despite promises from the likes of John Prescott, Gordon Brown, Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps, the number of new homes built each year has consistently fallen short of what statisticians think we need to renew Britain’s ageing housing stock: 250,000 homes a year.

Instead, housebuilding has averaged around 120,000 a year. Since the 2008 crash, it has been 114,000 a year. Despite a small recovery over the past two years, predictions are that low sales will lead to a fall-off in new starts, particularly in London.

Both political parties are grandstanding on the housing question. Labour is relishing the possibility that the promise of new council-house building will further undermine public faith in the Conservative Party’s free-market doctrine. Javid, by contrast, is trying to undercut Labour’s appeal with a bigger number.

But there is a simple answer to Britain’s housing crisis. Housing ministers’ promises are never fulfilled because none of them are willing to tackle the legal barriers to new building: Britain’s Town and Country Planning Act. Neither party is willing to address the restrictions on housebuilding that have choked the kind of growth we sorely need. Britain’s Green Belt areas put a sharp limit on land that could be built on, for no valid reason. Healey says that he wants to seize ‘planning gain’ (the premium that planners get with planning permission) to pay for social housing. But that means putting a greater economic penalty on building – which is not exactly the best way to get homes built. And Javid still claims he can build the new homes we need while leaving the sacred Green Belt intact.

Without releasing land for new building, the number of homes being built will continue to fall short of what is needed. And houses will, for that reason, stay ridiculously overpriced. Politicians would do well to quit swapping paltry numbers and get serious about tackling Britain’s housing crisis.

James Heartfield is the author of Let’s Build!: Why We Need Five Million New Homes in the Next 10 Years.

James is speaking at the session, ‘The academic roots of post-truth society’, at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on Saturday 28 October. Buy tickets here.

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