There was a small victory last week – a tiny milestone for Great Britain. Like everything else, it was overshadowed by the barbarism in Paris. But it is still worth noting quietly. As the Financial Times reported last week: “The supply of new housing in England has surged by a quarter in the past year.”
Surged! And not just because of economic recovery, but also thanks to “a series of planning liberalisation measures” from Conservative Ministers. A freer market has meant faster construction in England, and quicker renovation of disused properties. This is all to the good.
Our housing team (notably Greg Clark and Brandon Lewis) has pushed through a steady, grinding attrition of supply-side reforms. We are starting to reap their red-brick harvest.
But we should also face the uglier facts. While the numbers are climbing happily (see the graph above), we are still hugely short of building the homes that England needs. This is an old problem. We have never – in my lifetime – built what we needed.
Many experts say that we need 250,000 new homes a year. At the current rate of growth, England will not build at that level until 2017-18 at the earliest – assuming, heroically, that we can stay on trend.
As Labour’s Great Recession proved, our economy is not a spreadsheet. Rather, it is a maelstrom of human behaviour, which grows in fits and dizzying spurts. Investment surges or plunges. Tax revenues rise healthily one year, but roller-coaster down the next. Real wages swing erratically across the decades, like a bank-emptying pendulum. And nobody really knows what is happening: least of all the professional forecasters, who have failed to predict just about every recession since the “Tulip Mania” of 1637. As Paul Goodman warned last week on this site, we “cannot wave away the possibility, even the likelihood, of recession returning before 2020”.
Much of our housing growth is skewed, too. Last year, housebuilding actually cooled in some boroughs of North and West London, where the pressure is the most intense, and prices are spiralling fastest out of control. Yes – England is building more homes, and life is getting better. But we are having to sprint faster just to stand still. And housebuilding is still worryingly uneven – with pockets of sluggish growth where we most need acceleration.
So, what is to be done? ConservativeHome looked at this all exhaustively before May – in the first part of its Homes, Jobs, and Savings manifesto. So I won’t repeat all that here. Instead, think of the problem as conceptualised by the “Stockwell Bus Garage”. (You can have a ganders on Google StreetView, if you like, by punching in “SW4 6ST”.)
This is a largish brownfield site of two or three acres. It is a domed warehouse for buses, slap bang in central London – just two miles south of the Houses of Parliament, and well-connected to the Northern Line. Lambeth itself is absolutely gasping for new homes. We urgently need more, and here is a plum site. But despite this, these two acres are used as an overnight cleaning shack and rain-shelter for London buses – with no housing on top of it. Nothing. Zilch. Not a square metre of living room: just thin air.
When you peer down at our capital from a skyscraper, you can see how common this waste of space is: the empty, littered miles of TfL scrub; the abandoned car parks; the defunct acres of garages. It is criminal how much of London is low-rise, and woefully underused, given that millions cannot afford to buy a home of their own.
And who pays for this wastage? We do, through higher house prices and rents. The effect of so much low-rise is effectively a tax on Londoners. Bluntly, we could whack ten stories of beautiful housing on top of the “Stockwell Bus Garage”, and it would still function marvellously for its basic automotive purpose. Why haven’t we done that?
The truth is that most of London is low-rise. Vast acres of it, from Notting Hill to Greenwich. This needs to change, if we want our children to grow up in a property-owning democracy. Tall is cheaper: our challenge is to make it attractive. There are oodles of towering, medium-rise, svelte buildings in cities like Amsterdam, and New York. Why can’t we copy them here in Blighty?
Boris Johnson and Zac Goldsmith have made this point forcefully – in particular about the chaos of public brownfield – and they are trying to do something about it. Their London Land Commission (a catalogue of all the publicly owned sites) is a good start.
But there is bitter politics in planning, which is why progress has been so terribly slow. Some cry: “Localism!” Others shout: “Garden cities!” Others yell: “Social housing!” A few ask, “How will we pay for it all?” And the gargantuan, miserable, bureaucratic weight of planning processes weigh down the whole debate, like so many buckets of wet cement.
Without entering that quarrel, the “Stockwell Bus Garage” basically makes the point for us. Forget the Green Belt: we still have absolutely miles to go in redeveloping public or semi-public brownfield, which is the easiest place to start.
The question is: how do we get acceleration? Some say the planning process needs to be faster, with more certainty. Others say the Treasury should just impose by diktat, and abolish most planning rules altogether: “Build, build, build, and be damned!” Normally, I hate that sort of thing. But I am starting to believe, in inner-city London, they are right.