Why the UK's housing market is broken

The cause of the housing crisis in the UK is simple enough for any GCSE economics student to understand: there are too many people chasing too few homes to either buy or rent.

The reason behind this is twofold: regional policy has failed to prevent employment and wealth from clustering around Greater London and the South East of England causing an imbalance in demand (oversimplified as ‘the north-south divide’), and we have built far too few new homes for generations.

The solution is equally obvious: we need to improve transport and infrastructure and create employment where housing is currently most affordable — which it is across much of the UK — and build more homes where people want and need to live and work.

However, the latter can only be achieved by granting planning permission for more sites in more locations — and that’s where the problem lies. Almost everyone seems to recognise the need to build more homes for future generations, but also holds the contradictory view that they should be built anywhere except for where they live.

This is an unsustainable position. It is also creating a generation that has no choice but to rent, creating a divided society that is deeply corrosive. It is also slowly killing communities, especially in the green belt and open country, turning small villages in highly sought-after areas into dormitory or retirement settlements, where no one under 50 can afford to live.

Ironically, the same people who campaign to prevent new homes in such locations are often the very same people who decry the corresponding loss of the post office, local shop, school and community facilities, but cannot see the connection.

Only when we accept that no settlement is too small or too special to sustain at least some level of expansion — even if it is one new home every 10 or 20 years — will things change.

If this approach were put in place through planning policy and communities challenged to decide at local level how and where they want the new housing that is needed, it would help to diffuse the currently insurmountable local opposition to almost all housebuilding and lead to a constructive dialogue about what should be built and for whom.

More small sites — where people actually want to live — will always find buyers and will, therefore, be delivered. Increased permissions for small sites will also open up the market to SME housebuilders and those who want to build their own home. The proportion of new homes built by SME housebuilders has declined largely because they cannot access the land market.

The right to build legislation introduced in England in 2016 is intended to open up the land market to those who want to build their own home. It requires local authorities to assess demand through registers (righttobuildportal.org.uk) and places a duty on them to grant planning permission for enough serviced plots to meet that demand.

The right to build means local authorities must facilitate the creation of sites for new homes that are ‘shovel ready’. They can do this be working with landowners and developers through planning policy, by utilising public sector land or by buying land and engaging in placemaking — capturing a share of the planning gain and generating much-needed revenue in the process.

Significantly, these sites need not just be small and single plots, they can form part of a larger strategic housing site as identified by Oliver Letwin’s Independent Review of Build Out published in October 2018, which recognised that the serviced plots market can open up large sites — that could otherwise take decades to deliver — to new markets, accelerating the delivery of new homes.

Research by the Home Builders Federation (HBF) found that 33% of the public would consider buying a new home from their members.

The UK government is committed to solving the housing crisis and acknowledges the need to build more homes, and is very supportive of the custom- and self-build market, which it has pledged to grow to 20,000 homes a year by 2020.

Housing is one of the very few consumer markets in the UK where there is limited choice and competition. Transforming the market for building land, so there is access for new challengers alongside the volume housebuilders, will allow the market for new homes to function more like other consumer products, where supply can rise to meet demand, and choice and competition can drive quality, innovation and, above all else, affordability.

Development Finance Today readers can redeem free tickets to the National Homebuilding & Renovating Show by registering on the website.

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