Welcome to the housing crisis, part 4526. So far this month, we have learnt that planning permission has been granted for 320,000 homes but they have not been built; the housing market is slowing down; and people are spending more of their incomes on housing than ever before. But even with the scale of the problem, and a hamstrung government, things don’t have to be this way.
Housing is a significant challenge for our cities, a major solution to which is getting more homes built. It’s not surprising that all of the newly elected metro mayors are prioritising it – from Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, who wants to build a new small town to meet local housing demand, to James Palmer in the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, who put affordable housing at the centre of his manifesto, and Andy Burnham, who is refocusing the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework to tackle the housing crisis. Efforts by the new mayors are welcome – and if central government gives city regions more powers and flexibility, they will be able to make a much bigger contribution to meeting local housing needs.
But all cities exist within a wider national context. Planning permission is being granted but homes are not being built in all parts of the country. Giving local authorities the powers to deal with that is likely to take years, especially when no party has a majority in parliament to drive through new legislation.
The business model of private housebuilders does not vary from city to city: homes will only be built at the rate at which developers think they will be able to sell. Moreover, a market downturn that starts in London is likely to mean fewer homes are built in all parts of the country.
What we urgently need from government is action at the national level to, first, speed up new development: those 320,000 phantom homes would make a real difference around the country if they got built. Second, investment needs to be focused on getting the market working better over the long-term. That means supporting smaller builders so that we have a more diverse marketplace with more people in the business of building.
Third, we need to build the right types of homes. Building more homes for sale won’t help those who will not be able to afford a deposit anyway. Building more homes at reasonable rents will help people more quickly.
That’s where ResPublica’s new report comes in. Working with leading housing associations, we are proposing a National Housing Fund that would invest substantially (£10bn annually for ten years) in new homes for rent: we project at least 40,000 new homes a year could be built. These would be available under family friendly long-term tenancies, at reasonable and predictable rents.
It could buy homes on existing planned but stalled developments to reduce that number of phantom homes; and would support small developers to bring forward plans for more new homes by providing them with certainty of sale. Each year some tenants, enabled to save by paying reasonable rents, would be offered opportunities to buy their homes; proceeds would be reinvested in building replacements.
How can we afford this major new investment? After the 10 years of investment, housing associations would start paying back off the government’s investment.
In the meantime, our research finds that an investment of this kind is not only realistic: it’s highly desirable. The fund itself could be self-sustaining. Rents would more than cover costs of the borrowing and of managing the properties. And there would be significant wider social and economic benefits – 180,000 new jobs and £3.4bn in tax increases and welfare savings per year.
This is all about adding to existing housebuilding and policy initiatives. If cities or local authorities wanted to work with private sector developers, or build homes themselves, the fund would be there to fund it. With all parties in their manifestos committed to investing in new housing, parliamentary arithmetic need not get in the way of delivering this much-needed and overdue investment in housing.
Edward Douglas is policy & projects manager at the think tank Respublica.