Politicians have recently become fond of talking about how to tackle our alarming housing crisis.
Yet little is delivered – and what is achieved focuses on inflating demand, with schemes like Help to Buy which do nothing to address the underlying supply shortage.
In the third quarter of 2018, building on 46,930 new homes began – well below the 300,000 per year required to meet rising demand.
We need radical solutions. Our new study for the Institute of Economic Affairs, published tomorrow, shows how redundant public sector land can be released to meet this pressing need, and how we can create new neighbourhoods, villages, and towns that people will clamour to live and work in.
New-build will be an attractive addition to the landscape, no longer an ugly blot to be shunned and avoided.
What is required is a revival in the entrepreneurial approach to building vibrant new communities.
Britain used to be very good at creating new suburbs and communities before the Second World War but, as our study demonstrates, we seem to have lost the knack over the last half century. Indeed the last new town of any size, Milton Keynes, was launched over 50 years ago.
First, we recommend a fundamental review of the green belt, which has more than doubled in size since 1979 and is clearly no longer fit for purpose.
While it retains an iconic status in English planning, it should be stressed that the term “green” is not an environmental designation, or even a colour description.
A significant proportion of “green” belt land can be described as amber at best – unsightly scrubland rather than the rolling country fields conjured up by the moniker.
What’s more, far too much of the green belt is relatively inaccessible. As we argue in our report, “there is little value for residents of Hackney in protecting farmland of little environmental value a few miles away in Havering, particularly if it is inaccessible to the former”.
The overly severe green belt restrictions have pushed up housing costs and exacerbated the impact of expensive and environmentally damaging commuting.
If just one tenth of the green belt surrounding Greater London were used for new housing, we would be able to create 160,000 new homes around the capital – a significant response to the urgent housing crisis in London – and radically cut down commuting times.
There is also an issue with the clogged-up UK planning system. The Planning Inspectorate, whose role it is to process and oversee the system, is under intense pressure.
While the government offers lip service to the goal of more housing, in reality the number of planning appeals has soared by 118 per cent in 2017/8, reflecting the lack of clarity. Recruiting outside specialists and establishing a sitting mediation service would do much to tackle this problem and speed up decisions.
Finally, you might be shocked to learn that six per cent – around 900,000 hectares – of the land in England and Wales remains in public ownership. Some local authorities – Barking and Dagenham among them – own more than 40 per cent of all the land within their boundary.
It is disappointing to note the slow progress achieved with this land, particularly as much of it has been neglected. We recommend taking urgent action to tackle this impasse.
Britain needs homes, and it needs them now. We can start by rethinking the role of the public sector and making better use of available land.
This is real potential for smaller, innovative builders and designers to create attractive new housing and facilities. Let’s give them the space and opportunity to fulfil this vision.