IF WE could build and heat homes with the hot air generated by the UK’s housing crisis debate, we would solve both issues in one go. Eighteen months ago, the issue was the availability of mortgage finance. We could not build because our customers could not borrow, and that was dragging the volume of new homes down to the lowest level since the 1920s. Today, banks are lending more, and we have responded by increasing the number of homes we built in the last six months by 19 per cent compared with the same period a year ago.
A key reason has been the Help to Buy scheme. While the effect on the new build sector has been dramatic, it’s only funding around 3 per cent of house buyers in total and is used less in London than anywhere else. It’s driving construction across the country without inflating prices.
But while housing growth over the last year has been impressive, we start from a terribly low base. We can tackle the issue but we need to start now and accept that it will take time.
First, we have to identify more land for housing. Around 2 per cent of the country’s land is given over to housing and it has to be more. It was recently pointed out that we use more land in the UK for golf courses than we do for homes.
And when it comes to land holdings, more has to be done by the public sector to release redundant sites. Over 30 per cent of developable land is held by the public sector in all its forms. We have outstanding examples of where derelict public sector land has been transformed into thriving new communities of mixed housing. But the supply from the public sector is a trickle and needs to be a torrent.
Second, in the last four years, the coalition has worked hard to improve the planning system and we will not build more homes by radically revisiting that debate now. But there are modifications that can and should be made as planning still takes too long – an average of 70 weeks for our schemes. And for any one of our 50 homes sites, it takes longer to get through the planning process than to actually build and sell the houses.
On the brighter side, there are now many local authorities that accept the need for local housing and positively champion it. They understand how housing their local population can also deliver local growth.
Yet house builders cannot sit out the debate; we have to win it. We cannot make the case for more homes without building better homes. We have to demonstrate that building standards are higher and designs are better. That is why we have endorsed the use of Building for Life 12, the Design Council Code that will be used in all future developments.
But above all, the industry has to come together to solve the skills crisis we face. Yesterday, we announced that we will target 1,100 new apprentices, graduates and trainees over the next three years. It’s a start, but the scale of the challenge for the construction industry is daunting, having lost 350,000 employees since 2008.
Fixing the housing issue is not a short-term project. But we have to start somewhere and we have to start now.
Mark Clare is group chief executive of Barratt Developments.