Ben Everitt is the MP for Milton Keynes North and the Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Housing Market & Housing Delivery
We’re bouncing back by doubling down on levelling up. There’s no lack of active verbs or direction in the vision set out by this Government. The sense of mission is real, too – shared not just by new and enthusiastic 2019ers like me, but by veteran backbenchers, ministers and ‘15/’17 survivors too.
But there is a huge, intransient, illiquid, blob-like barrier to progress, that no amount of energy, passion and enthusiasm can succeed against. The UK housing market is broken. If we fix it, we can turbo-charge investment in infrastructure and enterprise outside of London. We can release young people trapped in the rented sector who are finding it harder and harder to settle down and start a family. We can remove the geographical choice too many are forced to make between the job they want and a home they can afford.
It’s a hugely exciting time for Global Britain right now. Trade deals going on left right and centre, our researchers leading the world in finding a Covid-19 vaccine. We’re even consulting on how the UK would regulate passenger space travel. But as we carve out our new global role, our broken housing market is a self-inflicted economic anchor holding Global Britain back. HMS Levelling Up is sailing into headwinds.
The recent reforms to planning announced by Robert Jenrick are certainly welcome. Planning is definitely a part of the problem but by no means all of it. There are much more structural issues with the UK housing market that need to be addressed if we are to build the right houses in the right places – which will be what makes levelling up sustainable.
The “housing affordability crisis” that the UK has experienced since the late 1990s is actually a problem caused by the UK’s success. The UK has become a global brand and a place that hundreds of thousands of people want to make their home every year. Our NHS, our schools, our universities, our jobs market, our countryside, our way of life; these are aspects of British life revered all over the world. Immigration has helped make Britain great and because Britain is great people want to migrate here. It’s a winning formula – and our new skills-based system will give British employers access to the worldwide talent they need to grow and invest. This unprecedented population growth (226,000 net growth in 2019) is equivalent to a new city every year and is not evenly spread but concentrated in London and the South East.
Another fantastic British success that’s adding pressure is the fact that our older generation are living happier, healthier, wealthier, more independent lives. It’s the golden age of the sliver surfer, and the fittest-ever cohort of over-70s in human history are alive and living in houses that in days gone by would have been back in the system for growing families to trade up into.
Naturally this level of population growth – both from migration and from living longer – puts a strain on our infrastructure, which was designed for a much smaller population. But Britain can, and will, solve this conundrum. Upgrading our public infrastructure is central to the Government’s agenda, and housing can also respond to the challenge of growth.
Well-meaning but minor and disconnected reforms by successive governments over decades have left the housing sector burdened with regulations which slow decision-making and create a weird spaghetti of disincentives. Put bluntly – the more we tinker, the more we mess it up. Our planning system is almost uniquely adversarial and expensive to navigate. Planners are often hamstrung by policy directives or afraid to use the powers they have. The whole thing jams up, sometimes for years, and I sometimes wonder if the only folk that truly win are the developers with the deepest pockets and the longest time horizon. And the lawyers, obviously.
The UK has experienced several housing crises since 1914, crises caused by war damage, shortages of building materials, shortages of labour, and population growth, but each previous crisis has been resolved by solutions co-designed by industry and government. Britain has a long and proud history of innovation in housing provision including house design, construction methods, neighbourhood design and loan financing. Innovation in each of these areas has helped provide affordable and decent homes for every generation.
Substantial innovation has been applied to housing over the last century; from the “Homes for Heroes” Addison Act of 1919, the “Metroland” that transformed NW London in the 1920s, the slum clearances and bungalow revolution of the 1930s, Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944, the prefabricated housing of the 1940s and 1950s, the first residential tower block of 1951, the two million council homes built in the decade after 1946, the “system-building” of the 1960s, the sixteen new towns created in England and Wales by 1964, the enhanced standards for council housing following the 1961 Parker Morris report which closed the gap between private housing and council housing, the return of bungalows in the 1960s, and the discounted sale of council houses to their occupants which started in 1971, Britain has led the way in innovative housing solutions. We can do this.
Today’s answers will not look like those: 21st Century conditions require a bespoke 21st Century response. But how do we rediscover the boldness and imagination which produced previous solutions?
A few things are clear. First, the answer doesn’t lie in reducing construction standards. The British public wants decent homes at affordable prices; our housing must be built to last and should achieve the highest aesthetic standards.
Second, any solution will require close collaboration between the Government and those with on-the-ground expertise of navigating the planning system and getting things built. We cannot have ministers handing down diktats from on high and leaving local authorities and frustrated housebuilders to sort things out as best they can. Joined-up, evidence-led thinking is essential.
And third, no more tinkering. To sort this properly, we need to unpick the whole thing and put it back together again. The fact is that the complexity of the issues with the housing market means that it doesn’t really resemble a market at all. A small intervention at one end sets off a chain reaction of unintended consequences leading, invariably, to an unexpected issue somewhere else in the housing ecosystem. We need all the players at the table to buy in to this.
That’s why I am delighted to be chairing the new All-Party Parliamentary Group for Housing Market & Housing Delivery.
The aims of our group are simple: to bring together MPs and peers from all parties who recognise how vitally important it is that we get Britain building, as well as the experts and professionals from the sector who have experienced the business end of the current planning system.
Our programme of roundtable discussions, evidence gathering sessions, and public events will help to introduce MPs to the issues and foster stronger links between Parliament and the sector. With this deep pool of legislative and sector experience, we will put together a comprehensive research agenda to find the policy solutions needed to unlock the sector and unleash the housing boom we need.
With this evidence to hand, our members will feed it back into the policy process at every level, from responding to consultations to proposing amendments to legislation.
Our work begins now. Yesterday the APPG launched its first consultation. We are inviting responses to one or both of the following research questions:
“What are the challenges of delivering the required number and mix of housing units that the UK needs to meet current and future demand?”
“Exactly how broken is the housing market?”
Whether you wish to offer your personal expertise or make a submission on behalf of an organisation, if you think you have even part of the answer to solving the housing crisis than we want to hear from you. Please send between 1,000 and 3,000 words to firstname.lastname@example.org by November 4th, 2020. Further guidelines for submissions are available on our website.
This will be just the first step on our journey, but I am increasingly confident that we will reach our destination. Across Parliament, there is a growing recognition that we need bold and decisive action to fix our housing sector.
Our APPG will serve as a bridge between the politicians who make the rules and the professionals who build the houses. Together, we will finally cut this Gordian Knot and deliver the British people the homes they want, in the places they’re needed, at a price they can afford.