John Myers is co-founder of London YIMBY, a grassroots campaign to end the housing crisis supported by local people, linked to the fast-growing YIMBY movement around the world.
Rachel Maclean, the 15th housing minister since 2010, has an overflowing in-tray. The department faces huge challenges. But, despite the setbacks, there is some hope on the horizon, including street ballot initiatives that include leveling-up and regeneration bills.
His problems include persistent problems with cladding, unaffordable homes, mold problems in social housing and of course the fact that the UK has the oldest and worst overall housing stock in the developed world. Despite our fine heritage of public and private buildings, we have built far less per capita than other countries since World War II. Much of our spending on new homes has paid for expensive and scarce planning permission, rather than well-designed and insulated buildings.
Taken together, the land under existing UK homes, and the scarce planning permission that allows those homes to exist, is now worth around £5.4 trillion. And that doesn’t include the buildings themselves. Of that £5.4 trillion, the majority is in price planning permits. We see this because farmland without planning permission is relatively cheap; Less than £20,000 per acre.
By contrast, buildings – the homes we all live in – would cost less than £2 trillion to rebuild at today’s construction costs. In unsustainable areas, just granting planning permission and using it to build homes creates huge new value, as housing is so scarce. That price goes to the people who build something. The rest of it goes to tenants who rent slightly less than they would have otherwise paid, to workers who can access higher-paying jobs they couldn’t have before, and to employers who can find additional workers. Some of this is paid to local governments for local infrastructure.
So you can understand why many economists believe that our failure to build has played a significant role in the low growth we’ve faced for more than a decade. In the 1930s, a wave of house building fueled growth. Prominent economic historian Nicholas Crofts estimates that between 1932 and 1934 housing construction accounted for one third of GDP growth.
The new minister already has some experience of infrastructure and planning from his time at the Department of Transport and Treasury. As a successful entrepreneur, he understands the value of letting the private sector provide as much high-quality housing as possible. But in housing he will face the same problem as all his predecessors: politics.
The simple fact every developed nation faces is that most voters often don’t like new construction near them. This is particularly true for home owners, but also for social housing tenants and even some private tenants. It has been the downfall of many housing ministers since 1946 when Louis Silkin was jokingly referred to by locals as his new town ‘Silkingrad’. You know it as Stevenage.
But today the Conservative Party faces an existential threat and thus simply giving up is not attractive. If the proportion of home owners continues to fall, young people will continue to desert the Tories. What’s more, if a market economy doesn’t deliver growth, voters will revert to command and control. Overall, if the Conservatives can’t deliver hope, voters will swing back to Labour.
Squaring the circle of political resistance to the need to build more has defeated most previous ministers. But perhaps there is a third way. A growing movement believes there are ways to provide more housing with the support of local people. Neighborhood planning was the first step. Recent community-led concepts such as street voting and community land auctions have built on its successes and lessons. The overall goal is to allow small groups of residents to allow new developments and share the benefits of the building, strictly ensuring that other residents are not negatively affected.
In the most inaccessible areas, getting permission to add more housing to their plot – perhaps like a bedroom or a granny flat – could profoundly improve the lives of many families who lack space or childcare.
The vision of the community-led housing movement is to let local residents take back control so that they make the final decision to allow further development near them in ways that benefit them. It will do so without interfering with the normal planning process. It won’t end all our problems, but it provides a rare win-win path to adding more homes to local support.