A return to wartime housing policies

What is Britain’s new vision for housing? Bribing council tenants to move into smaller properties to ‘make room’ for others.

James Heartfield

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Topics Politics UK

Britain’s local authority heads are asking for extra government cash to help with the housing problem. Good, you might say. Let us see some new homes built. But you would be overlooking the crazy logic of panic-stricken town halls.

Instead of getting cash to build new homes, the council chiefs want to use the money to try to persuade council tenants to give up their homes, or maybe trade them in for smaller ones.

Rather than do the obvious thing when demand is high – that is, increase supply – the authorities are scrabbling around trying to find some slack in the system. But there is very little slack. Most countries have a proportion of their housing stock empty (‘voids’) at any time, a natural effect of housing churn. After years of low output and lots of mortgage credit chasing every opportunity, Britain has the lowest number of ‘voids’ in Europe.

A cash injection into new housebuilding is just what we need right now. The projected number of new houses built in the coming year is just 100,000. When you think that there are 20million households in Britain, you realise just what a drop in the ocean 100,000 is. If those 20million families are not to live in crumbling ruins, their houses have to be replaced, over time. Assuming that a home will stand for around 100 years, you need to build 200,000 every year. On top of that, demand for homes is increasing, because the population is growing, more people are arriving, and people tend to live in smaller families than their parents did.

But council leaders have been too influenced by the campaign against mass house-building led by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Lord Rogers’ Urban Task Force, and the Green Party. Urban boroughs hoped that if they supported Lord Rogers’ proposal that all new housing should be in cities and not in the countryside, they would be able to hang on to council tax-paying residents. But their attempts to cram new homes into the few lots that fall vacant have not met existing need. The Tory shires have opposed new building to prevent the horror they think of as urban sprawl. Planning authorities have created a terrible trap of regulations and disincentives to build new homes. And the larger developers tended to go along with those limits, hoping to make more money selling fewer homes for more. That was why house-building was already at an historic low before the mortgages dried up.

The failure of the credit market has brought the reality of not building new homes crashing around our heads. Not enough new homes are being built and people cannot afford to raise the money to buy what homes there are. The vicious circle is complete as the major developers are all laying off their workforces.

The government’s plans to build eco-towns have turned out to be so many Potemkin villages. The eco-twaddle surrounding them is so onerous that no developers have yet worked out how to build them and still make money.

Council schemes to ration out the existing homes have been a failure to date. The priority worker scheme was so punitive that very few people took it up. The latest attempt to rummage around the back of the cupboard, hoping that there are a few goodies that have been overlooked, will fail to meet housing need. What it will do is shift the blame on to retired people and anyone else who has a spare room. Unless they build new homes, the government will be reduced to the wartime policy of billeting people in spare rooms.

James Heartfield is a director of the development think-tank Audacity.org. His book Let’s Build: Why We Need Five Million Homes in the Next Ten Years is available from his website at www.heartfield.org.

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield asked who demolished the housing industry. Elsewhere he exploded 15 myths about housing and rejected the government’s divisive housing policies. Mick Hume argued that we were paying the price for inflating the value of property. Dave Clements argued that Britain’s housing crisis was built on the the failure of the political imagination. James Woudhuysen said Gordon Brown is building on Blair’s small-minded approach to housing. Or read more at spiked issue Housing.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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