There can be a bit of a “glass half empty, glass half full” debate about the latest housing figures. There were 217,350 “additional dwellings” in England last year – up by 27,700 on 2015-16. So that is progress, but still nothing like enough to ease overcrowding for millions of households – and realise the dream of home-ownership for millions more. What is so frustrating is that the Government could make huge progress not by spending money but by raising billions through further sales of state land – Oliver Letwin’s memoirs have shown us how much more could be done. Not just twice or three times as much, but exponentially more – ten times or a hundred times more.
That leaves me as a glass half empty man. Yet digging away at the figures there are some encouraging signs. For a start the total is really 222,000 additional dwellings. That is because there were also 4,620 “net additional communal units” (student accommodation to you and me) which were not included. But if extra student flats are provided then that eases pressure on the rest of the private rented sector. There are more homes available for others.
Also not counted are the empty homes brought back into use. But this has been a quiet Conservative success story which is continuing. Last year there were 589,766 vacant dwellings in England, the year before it was 600,179. In 2010 it was 737,147. Applying the New Homes Bonus has proved an effective incentive. In terms of empty council homes the number last year was 23,928. The year before it was 27,421 and in 2010 it was 30,369.
Within the total there are still some disturbing numbers. To take some examples from London, we see that in Enfield there are 427 empty council homes, in Southwark it’s 578, in Camden 592, in Hackney 600, in Greenwich 733. Ealing has the highest figure at 897. All are Labour councils of course – led by those who will busily denounce the Tories for the shortage of social housing. There needs to a be a “use or lose it” rule established. Councils should not be allowed to hoard long term derelict properties – they should be forced to sell them and use the proceeds to bring other homes back into use.
What the latest housing figure do include though are the 37,000 extra homes from change of use. This is due to a Conservative reform which has made this much easier – a policy Labour opposed. Roberta Blackman-Woods, when the Shadow Planning Minister, said it was “entirely misguided.” Nicky Gavron, on the London Assembly, warned of the “threat” to London’s offices. She said:
“London may have surplus office space, but as we heard today, there seems a real danger that these Government plans could be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
A Labour Party policy pronouncement declared:
“Reform is urgently needed in this area following the Government’s recent interventions to extend permitted development rights from the centre without taking into account local considerations. For example, the top down change to permitted development from office to residential property from which 75 per cent of London councils have already said they will seek exemption. We are proposing the radically different approach of handing councils the power to determine their own permitted development rights.”
The housing shortage would be even worse if Labour had got their way.
Then there is the expansion of the housing supply due to people building extensions. If people convert a house into flats this will show up as an increase – converting flats back into a house, as a reduction. Last year the net conversions figure was an increase of 5,680 in the number of homes. What doesn’t show up – but I suspect is rather more significant, is the number of extra bedrooms created in existing homes. If someone builds another bedroom and takes in a lodger that still provides an extra person with a home – even though it doesn’t mean an increase in the number of homes. Or the extra space might be used to accommodate an elderly relative – whose own home can then be rented out or sold. Of course there are endless variations but the upshot is that increasing the size of existing homes is part of the solution.
Building works can be controversial – especially to neighbours of properties undertaking a cellar conversion to provide a basement. Loft conversions tend to be less of a problem. Permitted development rights should be extended to make reasonable building extensions easier to accomplish without the extra cost and delay of planning permission – especially when consent would invariably be granted anyway.
Furthermore at present the Government punishes those who restore a derelict house or extend their home. VAT is imposed. What sort of madness is that if the ambition is to increase the housing supply?
There is a housing crisis and the fundamental changes needed to allow a functioning market have not yet been taken. However there are some modest signs of improvement which are welcome. New building is the main answer but let’s remember it is not the only one.