The housing crisis has been growing for at least 20 years. It has created new memes like Generation Rent and Priced Out. More recently, it has even created a new acronym: ‘Yimby’ – yes in my back yard.
It is a crisis that is variously blamed on a shortage of land, or a shortage of finance, or the intransigence of Nimbys or on housebuilders deliberately sitting on plots to create scarcity value.
Crises are never solved by the blame game. Opposing groups, once they become entrenched, thrive on criticising each other. So solving the housing crisis will need a way of breaking through that deadlock – the struggle between those who oppose change and those who need homes and support economic growth.
To consider ways to solve the housing crisis, Argent, Berkeley, Clarion, Knight Frank and Savills agreed to co-sponsor three academic reports and hold a three-day think tank, ‘the Sprint’, with 50 participants, hosted by the University of Oxford. Homes England and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government provided co-funding, and I was chair of the steering group.
The academic reports looked at land supply (Professor Paul Cheshire, LSE), finance for housing (Professor Andrew Baum, Saïd Business School, Oxford) and community (Professor Peter Bishop, Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL).
A number of key findings came from both the reports and the Sprint including:
- The six million new homes we need over the next 20 years would require, at most, some 1.5% of England’s undeveloped land;
- Building 300,000 homes each year would require an annual investment of £100bn to finance the construction of the homes themselves and new or improved roads, schools, doctors’ surgeries, parks and landscape in areas taking more housing;
- Communities blessed with the right mix of amenities, whether active villages or major cities, provide social, health and economic benefits. If new development did more to deliver facilities and support communities, opposition to new housing could be much reduced.
Beyond these headline findings, the Sprint event, based on agile thinking forums from the tech industry, quickly came up with a host of specific ideas: ways of encouraging low-cost institutional capital into homes and infrastructure; guidelines for green-belt release in exceptional circumstances that also deliver far larger areas of public open space managed by local amenity trusts; and thoughts on how land value capture could more effectively provide local benefits and win popular support for development.
After the Sprint, we started to write up each of these ideas. But at the back of our minds, two things worried us: first, that no single idea was the silver bullet that would solve the housing crisis; and second, there have been dozens of reports in recent years written by respected think tanks and distinguished individuals like Nick Raynsford, Sir Michael Lyons and Sir Oliver Letwin. But once they land, what happens next? Are they implemented or forgotten?
Government has not given housing the consistent approach it deserves. There have been 19 housing ministers in the past 20 years – nine in the past seven. But beyond that, housing is never treated sufficiently holistically. Housing should not just be about numbers. A target of 300,000 homes a year is laudable, but it says nothing about the need for new homes to enhance communities and the provision of schools and doctors’ surgeries, parks and playgrounds, with transport and jobs. It says little about location and tenure.
This led us to focus on one overriding recommendation – the creation of a powerful catalyst for change. We suggest the formation of a housing advisory committee, which would be funded by the government and interact with participants, including those primarily opposed to change.
I believe the deep knowledge and authority of a housing advisory committee could be the best way for the Sprint’s many specific suggestions – and those in other reports, recent and future – to be rigorously tested and, if they pass the test, promoted by government as long-term policies and not just announcements for the day.
The Sprint is over – let the marathon begin.
Peter Freeman is co-founder of Argent and chairman of Mayfield Market Towns.