How Is It Possible To Miss The British Housing Crisis This Badly?


Most of us – those who don’t already own their share of the green and pleasant acres at least – have noted the problems with the British housing market. Prices are simply too high relative to incomes for all to have a nice, spacious, spread to live in. We’ve no shortage of land, the built environment is perhaps 10% of the land area, that devoted to housing about 3%. So, we’ve obviously enough got something wrong here, something that can be fixed.

At which point a solution which has the problem of entirely missing the problem it itself manages to describe.

For here is, correctly, the problem:

What Porter is stumbling into here is one of the most obvious pieces of common sense that has yet to become housing policy: the recognition that most of what is unaffordable about unaffordable housing is not the house itself, but the land beneath it.

Well, not exactly. Agricultural land, even in the South East, is still only £10,00 a hectare or so. You can get 15 reasonable houses on that (the government insists 30 but they don’t live in those rabbit hutches) and say 4 with gardens that would make Englishmen proud. Why not after all, half a football pitch isn’t too much land for a des res is it.

It’s the permission to build a house on that £2,500 worth of land which is expensive. The house, a nice 3 bedder these days might cost £100,000. £130,000 then, go on with you. We should be able to put up – before we’ve built the roads and schools, fair enough –  a decent house with a big garden for every household in the nation – even those who would prefer that flat in town – for £150,000 a pop. We can’t simply because we don’t issue enough permissions for this to happen.

But, you know, he’s a lot of the way to getting the diagnosis right here so props for that. It’s the solution that veers off the rails:

In a sensible world, the people best placed to provide affordable land are councils.

Entirely true, it’s councils that issue panning permission. Issue more chitties and we can build more housing. But here’s the veer:

However, the people best placed to build the homes on top of that land are the families and communities who will live in them, raise their children in them, and pay the heating bills.

In fact, residents are the only people who actually have an incentive to put more insulation into the walls, to bring more daylight into their homes, to create car-free neighbourhoods – in short, to do all the other things that we agree we should be doing in the 21st century.

So why not just lease the plots at an affordable price directly to local families and groups, who can then build – or buy – homes for themselves?

That’s not solved our problem at all, has it? Our problem is the affordability of the chitty to allow a house to be built. Who builds the damn houses is not even germane to this problem let alone a solution to it. Let Wimpey – if it still exists – have land plots at £2,500 and they’ll have Paddies swarming on site in minutes. Let self-builders have plots at £2,500 a piece and they’ll do the swarming. But it’s the £2,500 that’s important, not self- or Wimpey-build.

We could also mutter that the problem has been assumed away with that “lease the plots at an affordable price” malarkey. If they were a reasonable price we’d not have a problem.

As has been pointed out before:

Yes, we do want to return to that. We can solve the British housing problem at a stroke. Just blow up, repeal in their entirety, the Town and Country Planning Acts. Job done.

Our problems are caused by the current regulation of who may build what where.
The solution to our problems is thus to change who may build what and where. and given that the only time that market did solve this problem it was by being allowed to build where people actually wanted to live then that should be the system we return to. Other countries have much this system and do not have problems with their housing. So, we should too.

We’ve not a problem with building houses, we’ve a problem with being allowed to build houses. Thus it’s the permission, not the building, system that needs reform, isn’t it? Preferably by total and complete destruction of the permission system.