Patrick Mooney, housing consultant and news editor of Housing, Management & Maintenance magazine asks the ‘64 thousand dollar question,’ after hearing the Housing Minister’s conference speech, namely where will the UK’s much needed new housing come from?
During the recent Housing conference in Manchester, the Housing Minister Rachel McLean gave a surprisingly upbeat assessment of the Government’s housebuilding record and its future prospects. Was she just being loyal to the current administration, or could there be a sound basis for such optimism?
I confess that I was more than a little surprised when Ms McLean told delegates the Government is still targeting the building of 300,000 new homes a year. After all this is an issue that had threatened to split the Conservative Party in the past year and tensions were only cooled when Michael Gove agreed to scrap the need for local targets.
This struck developers and commentators alike as a classic compromise, but also one that could fatally undermine all efforts to deliver the headline target. It seemed like NIMBY (not in my backyard) had morphed into BANANA (build absolutely nothing, anywhere near anyone). But it’s also possible the nervous Tory MPs in the Shires miscalculated a changing mood in the public, with many more voters expressing their support for more housebuilding.
In recent weeks, we’ve also heard of all sorts of difficulties – from setbacks in modular building capacity, to councils and housing associations scaling back their development plans and volume builders accused of slowing building rates on their sites and delaying use of their land banks. The prospects are not looking great and that’s without even taking account of difficulties in the wider economy.
In her conference speech Rachel McLean appeared to pin a lot of her optimism on the sector’s recent track record for house building. She said that in the past year, annual housing supply was up 10% compared with the previous year, with more than 232,000 net additional homes delivered in 2021/22. She also complimented the social housing sector and promised them more support in her speech, but stopped well short of backing this up with any extra money.
The House Builders Federation have countered by warning the Government that its proposed Infrastructure Levy will have a detrimental impact particularly when coupled with increased regulation and a planning process which the HBF claims is grinding housing delivery to a halt! They calculate that changes to the National Planning Policy Framework are costing the country about 77,000 unbuilt homes.
More than 2.2 million homes have been delivered since April 2010 when David Cameron first entered Downing Street as Prime Minister. This looks like an impressively large figure and yet we still have a huge (and growing) housing crisis in the country as the country’s demographics continue to change and evolve.
There are more than 1.2 million people on local authority housing waiting lists and last year, just 6,554 social homes were built in England, 81% fewer than in 2010 and a fraction of the 90,000 new social homes needed every year according to the NHF and Crisis. Homeownership rates have fallen from 66% in 2010 to 64% last year. House prices appear to have plateaued but are still averaging something like 11 times average salary levels.
RISING LOAN COSTS
Economic problems and stubbornly high inflation have combined to push up interest and mortgage rates to 15 year highs. Repayments have shot up and many mortgage deals have been pulled. It is getting to the stage where nearly everyone either has direct experience of housing affordability problems, or knows of a family member or friend who is in difficulties.
According to the campaign group Generation Rent (GR), the average time it takes to save for a home deposit in England has climbed to almost 10 years underlining the growing unaffordability for first-time buyers. Data issued by the Halifax building society earlier this year found the average deposit for those buying their first home in 2022 was just over £62,000 – up 8% on 2021.
In London GR claims the average time before someone is able to step on to the property ladder is 18.3 years. However, that is only if the individual lived in a flatshare the whole time. If they were to rent on their own, they would need to save for 27 years, the researchers claimed.
Ben Twomey, a director at Generation Rent, said: “In much of the country the typical worker faces at least a decade living and saving in the private rented sector before they have a mortgage deposit. That gets close to two decades for Londoners, and even then, that’s only possible by sharing with other people into their 40s.”
So is it shortfalls in supply that are driving prices up and demand through the roof, or is it a political and economic downturn that is damaging builders’ confidence levels and forcing them to cut back on their development plans?
The Chancellor has tried to strong arm the banks and building societies into being more flexible with their borrowers by extending loan terms (up to 35 or even 40 or 50 years), giving payment holidays and holding off from calling in the bailiffs. But the Treasury is not awash with cash and its reluctance to finance any specific offers of help, is severely limiting the pressure they can apply.
Not long before the Manchester (Housing) conference, the NHF published the results of a survey which shows the Conservative Party might have lost touch with their grassroot supporters and the wider electorate more generally. The poll results show the majority (52%) of Conservative voters in Britain believe we are not building enough social housing while around half (48%) think the Government should prioritise building social housing over homes for sale (28%) or private rent (8%).
The results showed a strong consensus among Brits of all ages, political affiliations and across all parts of the country, over a need to build social housing above other types of homes.
Over 50s, the demographic most likely to vote, were most in favour of prioritising social housing.
The survey also revealed the public’s view of the Government’s record on housing, with nearly two-thirds (64%) of voters saying they thought housing issues in general had got worse since the last general election. When asked whether housing issues had got worse for specific groups, the highest number of voters (70%), said they had got worse for people on low incomes (less than £20,000). This was true for voters from all three main parties.
A LONG TERM PLAN FOR HOUSING
The polling coincided with the NHF launching a new report, ‘Why we need a long term plan for housing’, which makes the case to all political parties for a strategic, long term plan aimed at drastically increasing the number of affordable and social homes built over the next decade.
It revealed that the Government has published national strategies on areas ranging from space (the National Space Strategy) to shipbuilding (the 30 Year National Shipbuilding Strategy) but
it doesn’t currently have a national strategy for housing. Which brings us back to the mismatch between having the 300,000 new homes a year target, but withdrawing the need for local delivery plans and targets.
Kate Henderson, chief executive of the NHF said: “There is a clear consensus among voters from all parties and people across all ages and parts of the country, not only that we need to build more social housing, but that this should take precedence over building any other types of home. There is also indisputable evidence that housing policies over the last few decades, particularly those focused on home ownership, have widened inequality, increased Government spending and made the housing crisis worse.”
She added: “How can it be that we have a national strategy for space exploration, but no strategy for homes back here on earth? With such strong public support for and proof of the need for more social housing, it’s time for politicians to catch-up and make meaningful commitments that will solve the housing crisis and ensure everyone has access to a safe, secure and affordable home. We urgently need a long term plan aimed at drastically increasing the number of affordable and crucially social homes built over the next decade.”
The private rented sector has been picking up much of the slack in the market, providing temporary homes for those who are waiting to get on to the property ladder. But even here, there is evidence that many ‘accidental’ landlords are taking fright at changes in regulation and the weaker economy by selling up some or all of their homes for let.
Councils and housing associations are keen to pick up the slack and increase their housebuilding, but they are constrained by the lack of cash available to subsidise the cost of building. Their own resources are spread too thinly to deliver on all their priorities, with the Government and social housing regulator requiring them to undertake more decarbonisation work, improving energy efficiency and tackle safety issues, like damp and mould in their existing stock. Social rents have also been capped, mainly in an effort to control the housing benefit bill, but with the unplanned consequence of reducing landlords’ resources for building new homes.
This all amounts to an extensive list of issues and problems for Ms McLean and her boss Michael Gove to correct. It’s unlikely that any changes made in the next few months will have a positive impact before the next general election. But it leaves us back with the original question which the Government has to address – where will the much needed new housing come from?