Sheffield: The UK Housing Crisis

14 June 2023 , categories: Housing, Meetings, Sheffield

PiPs Sheffield discussed the UK housing crisis and asked whether it is time to review our policies on the Greenbelt and Localism?

Politics in Pubs gets started in Sheffield!

The first meeting of Sheffield Politics in Pubs took place on Wednesday June 14th at the Old Queens Head, Pond Hill.  Many thanks to them for making us welcome and joining in our meeting.  There were eight of us.  Five lived in and around Sheffield, one was from Ilkley, one from Barnsley and we were joined by Steve from PiPs Manchester.

Steve outlined the background to PiPs – spun out of Brexit groups which brought people together, sometimes for the first time, to discuss political ideas.  When we introduced ourselves we seemed to fall across the political spectrum, not proselytising from any ideological basis, openminded to new ideas and generally feeling homeless politically.  Ironically, the topic of the meeting was also about homelessness but in the sense of the UK housing crisis.

The presentation was given by Matt Hesketh who works in the housebuilding industry with experience across the public and private sector.  He outlined the key elements of the crisis: a 300k/year shortfall in house building with an estimated 4m shortage; prices beyond the grasp of many on average incomes; dilapidated stock; diminished public sector provision; gentrification marginalising poorer people; an effective oligarchy of housing providers and a curbing of social mobility.

Land supply and the Greenbelt

The proposition was that land-banking was not so much the issue but control of the amount of land coming onto the market was.  There simply isn’t enough land zoned for housing and an effective anti-growth coalition of environmentalists and objections from established communities and interests delay development when it is actually permitted. The fetish about prioritising brownfield sites is overly London-centric as in the former industrial north, the clean-up costs of these sites often render them uneconomic.  When land is rezoned and comes onto the market, often from large private landowners, the price can rise from £10k/acre to £300k/acre.

The proposal to begin to turn this crisis around was twofold: top-down targets with zoning set by experts to offset the blocking and profiteering at local level and a tax on the profits made when the price of land is uplifted by rezoning.

A fair observation would be the crisis is not one with a quick fix.  It took a generation to create and may take that long to resolve.  It was stated that the peak in terms of square foot floorspace per person in the average newbuild was 1950 and it has been on the decline since.

Should we be saying we want homes for people and families that they want to live in rather than the more utilitarian statement that we need more houses.  Where does that bring us in the brownfield v’s greenfield – city v’s suburbs and country debate?

There was disagreement as to how much immigration was adding to the problem.  Also, how much communities should have a say in what new developments take place.

The current policy was described as densification, with people being forced to live in towns close together by policy makers ‘who know best’.  Should we rekindle the garden city movement?

So we covered profiteering, the rights to private property vs public good, taxation, immigration, environmentalism, localism, technocratic decision making, national policy making, oligarchs, Margaret Thatcher and homes fit for families all without a cross word.

The issues are covered in more detail in Matthew’s pre-meeting briefing paper below.

Matt’s Briefing Paper

The problem

We’re in the midst of a housing crisis. To meet current demand, estimates suggest we would need to deliver at least 300,000 homes a year. Over the past decade we’ve delivered half that – that’s the equivalent to a town the size of Middlesbrough not being built every year. With net migration rapidly increasing, this shortage is only going to get greater, and the impacts are colossal.

Affordability and living conditions

This lack of supply has pushed house prices to terrifying heights. In real terms (i.e. adjusted for inflation) average house prices have nearly tripled since the 1970s and are now 9x the average family wage. Put that into context, my modest semi-detached home purchased for £200k a few years ago would have cost £67k, my mortgage reduced from £750 per month to around £250 per month.

This eye watering jump has crippled young people who are now unable to get on the housing ladder, intensified class inequalities and curbed social mobility. This jump in cost also harms family life; young mums are forced to work longer hours to help pay for inflated mortgages, children are often pushed into nurseries (which are also unaffordable) and huge financial pressure is put on normal working families – one of the many reasons family break-down has grown in the post-war period.

We’ve also got a lack of affordable homes (or homes for social/affordable rent, historically delivered by Local Authorities as council housing but now picked up by registered providers for the same purpose) – this is especially apparent in London where we see working class neighbourhoods become gentrified and those on the breadline pushed into even poorer housing conditions.

In Rochdale, the tragic death of toddler Awaab Ishak due to mould in his social rent home, was a stark reminder that there are deadly consequences to getting our housing policy wrong. In my own city of Sheffield, kids are growing up in slum housing at Page Hall and Darnall and our elderly people are living in squalid maisonettes at Gleadless Valley and Burngreave.

Thatcher and Attlee

Many experts trace the decline of Affordable Housing to Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy – which saw the sale of council homes to aspirational working-class families. Despite huge benefits to many now home-owning families, the lack of reinvestment of council housing has been devastating with stock numbers reducing from nearly six million in the early 1970s to around two million today (although an additional 3 million are owned for various tenures by registered providers).

Thatcher’s rolling back of the state also left housing delivery to the private sector which has created an oligarchy of several large PLC builders who can dictate prices and heavily influence government policy. This monopoly of private interest is a sharp contrast to Attlee’s post war Government which saw a vast national housing programme build over a million homes from 1945 to 1952. The country’s need to create better living conditions also saw new ideas proposed, such as Ebeneezer Howard’s Garden City movement which transformed how we viewed and delivered housing. The demolition of large swathes of Victorian slums and creation of well built, suburban, communities saw families and communities thrive. So much of this is relevant today.

Land supply and reviewing the Greenbelt

Other major barriers to housing delivery (and perhaps less talked about) include land supply. Whilst much gets said of developers’ land banking (holding land assets under Option Agreements rather than developing them out) my experience has been to the contrary, with developers fiercely competing to secure land through competitive bidding with national and local agents. This market free for all, inflates land prices which in turn increases house prices as private housebuilders seek a solid return on their investment.

To help cool the land market (and also see greater delivery) we need more sites allocated for residential development by local councils. The planning process also needs urgent review with a presumption to approve planning application which follow policy guidance and statutory timescales met (the 13-week target has fast become a joke to those in the industry).

Despite the vocal concerns of pressure groups, a tiny proportion of land is built upon in the UK (less than 10%). We need an urgent review of the Greenbelt with far more land released for new housing.

Sunak and Gove’s U-turn in relation to top-down housing targets has further harmed housebuilding.

Tax and Viability

Viability is also a real barrier to growth. Much of the debate on housing in the UK is London centric and misses the huge challenge of making brownfield schemes stack up north. From my time working in South Yorkshire and the North Midlands, a huge amount of land is undevelopable due to abnormal costs (often associated with mine workings and contaminated ground).

We need then more government intervention in remediating brownfield sites and unlocking them for development. A simple way of doing this would be to increase land tax, notably taxing the uplift in value from a change in land allocation – i.e. from agricultural value (at circa £10k an acre) to residential value (market dependant but often in excess of £250k an acre in the leafy parts of Yorkshire)

Putting that into context, a 10-acre site can go from being worth £100,000 to £3m just by changing an allocation or colour on a plan in a planning policy document. There should of course be reward to landowners for spending substantial time and money on planning risk; but this needs to be proportionate and reasonable. Stamp Duty aside these transactions are weighted far too heavily in favour of landowners.

Government and local councils also need greater confidence in securing and promoting their own land for residential development and using CPO powers to secure sites at agricultural value. It’s tiring watching heredity landowners/estates promote their own agricultural land and sell on the open market for millions once a residential consent is secure.

Challenging Localism and the role of Partnerships

The Localism Act 2011 devolved more powers to councils and neighbourhoods claiming to give communities greater control over local decisions like housing and planning. The reality of this approach has been to stifle development and embolden objectors – housing policy needs to be set by experts and with government imposing top down, housing targets on councils.

This is now a huge conflict for the Conservative party and will be one of the reasons they fail at the next General Election. It is impossible to balance the interests of those who are inherently anti-development and those who want to see growth and new homes delivered.

Whilst calls for a state led housing programme are naïve, we do need stronger partnerships between the public and private sector; with councils bringing land and planning support and private sector developers bringing their expertise and construction efficiency. My award-winning work with Hull Council and Leeds Council is seeing the delivery of thousands of homes through collaboration and long-term relationships.

This is a crisis that can be tackled, we just need to give a louder voice to those with experience and expertise and be confident to tackle the objections.

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