We all agree that Britain needs more housing. In this article, William Hall discusses the way forward on this important issue.
All too often I feel a sense of deep frustration at the debate on housing. All parts of our political spectrum agree that there is a pressing need for more housing. Thanks to years of chronic underbuilding home ownership for many young people is a fantasy. According to a 2018 study by Which?, first time buyers in Oxford are forking out an average deposit of £82,006.
It’s not just the deposit that stands in the way of home ownership for my generation. House prices in England are now almost 8 times higher than average earnings. In the whole of the country this is a severe problem and in London it is a spiralling crisis – Camden’s average first time buyer deposit is £174,974. I imagine that I am not alone in wandering who these first-time buyers are.
But for those of us on the front line of the battle for housing, the debate rehearsed time and time again between certain think tank talking heads is false and irrelevant. There is no grand battle between young people and established home-owner-NIMBYs. In my rural Oxfordshire Council ward, residents of leafy villages are supportive of targeted housing for young people and are committed to this kind of housing actually being affordable. It is less a matter of ‘Not In My Back Yard’ and more ‘Not THAT In My Back Yard’.
The debate should be about how we can deliver new housing that makes a dent in the societal harm that policy is trying to address. As Conservatives, we won the debate on the value of home ownership decades ago not least with that magnificent policy: The Right to Buy. However, the actual delivery of large-scale increases in housing stock in the UK is very much more a technical challenge than an ideological one. Rural communities struggling to stay alive and vibrant are crying out for small units, built to high design standards that can add to their settlements.
Too often the debate on housing gets bogged down in the drama of which strategic sites and where. These are important questions and can change the nature of an area for ever. But the focus on this often leads to a lack of concentration on small-scale developments. New towns consisting of mostly ‘executive’ housing is of little good to the children of rural communities who are priced out of the area they have grown up in. They are of even less value to young urban families unable to save for expensive deposits because of ridiculously high rent.
Councils are spending enormous amounts of their time on Local Plans (strategic housing documents saying where big developments will go in their area) but not long enough on working with smaller developers to bring forward intelligent, well designed sites.
So my suggestion is this: let’s recognise that almost everyone accepts the need to build truly affordable housing for first time buyers to get on the housing ladder. Let’s talk to small, local developers. Let’s work with communities, strengthen Neighbourhood Plans and design Local Plans that engage as much with residual dispersal strategies as they do with strategic housing sites. If we don’t, we will end up with a country where my generation is locked into renting forever.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Cllr William Hall is a Councillor in Oxfordshire and a former Cabinet Member for Finance and Strategy. He now works in Education Policy after a time working in the private sector and, previously,
as a Senior Researcher in the House of Commons.