Ruth Porter is Head of Economic and Social Policy at Policy Exchange
Over the last ten years my husband and I have moved nine times. I grew to hate packing and we became so intent on wanting to buy somewhere that, in order to save up a deposit, we moved into a shared flat with friends for a couple of years, even turning the sitting room into an additional bedroom to maximise the economies of scale.
Finally, last year we became the proud owners of a small terraced period property in south-west London. It’s fair to say that after moving around so much, I had pretty high expectations of what owning my own place would be like. Somehow the reality has been even better. Choosing what colour you paint the walls, where your TV goes, how you arrange your books, these little decisions say something about you. A home is about having somewhere you can express yourself, and be yourself. Of course, you do not have to own a house for it be a home, but it certainly helps.
Governments should realise that housing isn’t just about somewhere to put people, it’s a deeper question about how you build a society of people who feel they have a stake and are attached to it. The aesthetics matter. As an issue that is rapidly moving up the political agenda, now featuring in Ipsos Mori’s top ten issues voters are most concerned with, the debate on planning has become at times shrill and polarised.
But it need not be. The answer must lie in a greater focus on getting local buy-in, with more discussion about design, purpose and practicality. This is precisely why Policy Exchange’s work has focused on proposing a range of ideas – everything from a massive expansion of self-build schemes, to new urban developments near existing cities and Garden Cities supported by local people outside of the existing planning system. As well as selling off expensive social housing to fund new homes. These are all policies that could significantly increase the supply of new homes.
Politicians also need to find a way of navigating development so that what is built is accompanied by expansions in relevant infrastructure – school places, road links and the rest. The lack of supply of housing isn’t just a huge problem for many people who need a home, it’s also an opportunity to build wonderful homes, expand communities, foster connection, family and creativity. It would be great if our politicians could see it as such.
There is a lot of talk about the economic facts on housing, and they make for grim reading. Last year, a study from the OECD suggested that compared to rents, UK house prices are 31 per cent too high. UK property taxation raises more than twice the average level in the OECD. When you also consider that only five per cent of England is concreted over, it is little wonder houses are so expensive. We need to build somewhere in the region of 300,000 new homes every year from 2015 to 2020 if supply is to meet even existing demand, and to stop prices from escalating above the already eye-watering levels.
But it’s not enough to address the question simply in these terms. It’s hugely concerning for parents in an area where house prices are skyrocketing, wondering how on earth their children are going to be able to afford to buy somewhere in the local area. With people living longer, and with more families relying on older relatives to help look after children, strong family links have never been more important.
Building a new development near an existing community or even a new garden city is not simply about creating homes for people, it is also about ensuring that your child can stay in the local community and not have to move away to find cheaper accommodation elsewhere.
In the discussion about the cost of living and the recent focus on energy prices, it is worth refocusing on how the cost of housing – whether that be mortgage repayments, rents or housing benefit rates – is the biggest factor in squeezed living standards. Yet, the discussion about finding people somewhere to live, shouldn’t just be about enabling people to find places, it should be about enabling people to find places where they can live well. We know that layout and design matters, that 1960s tower blocks, for example, are not the best format for creating a sense of community.
Voters up and down this country care about housing because they understand this. Politicians need to catch up and tap into this emotion as well as referencing the economics. People know the sorts of homes they want to live in; the Government needs to ensure that the systems are in place to enable them to be built. The particular needs of each community will differ – but everywhere we need more than extra housing units. We need more homes. Whoever can develop a credible plan, to enable those homes to be built, will not only reap an electoral reward they will also make a huge contribution to making Britain a better place to live.