Another strange idea to reform the housing market

It does continue to amuse us, watching the contortions that people twist themselves into in their attempts to reform the housing market. As opposed to, you know, just getting on with issuing more planning permissions so as to bring down the price of housing. The latest one is that self-builders should be treated as special little snowflakes with their own, special snowflake, planning permissions system:

But we also need to reform the land market, to make it dramatically easier for those without much capital to buy a plot of land and commission their own homes – either individually or as a group. All political parties pledge theoretical support for custom and self-build, and the government’s “Right to Build”, which allows people to buy council land on which to build their own houses, is a first step. But systemic change is needed to create a market providing land specifically for custom and self-build housing.

Let’s create a new land use class in the planning system “C5 Custom build”. In effect, that would create a parallel land market that differentiates between a house built as a speculative asset, and a house built as a place to live. Let’s create space for both, and see which works.

There’s only one problem with this suggestion. Which is that we don’t in fact want a special class of planning permission for self builders. What we actually want is simply the issuance of more planning permits. For as is entirely obvious to everyone the price of housing in the UK is determined by a shortage of said planning permissions. So, therefore, we don’t want the creation of a special system for special snowflakes, we simply want the loosening of the planning permission system as a whole. And then indeed self builders can run alongside more commercially minded organisations and may the best man win.

Green Belts increase business rents too

If you’ve picked up a newspaper or turned on a radio or TV today then the chances are you’ve read or heard about the Adam Smith Institute’s latest research paper – The Green Noose: An analysis of Green Belts and proposals for reform.

A section of the paper considers the impact of Green Belts upon businesses. As author Tom Papworth explains, increasing the cost of business premises increases the costs of running businesses, which pushes up prices. This reduces the real disposable incomes of households, while putting UK businesses at a competitive disadvantage by shifting production overseas.

A few years ago, I interviewed the inventor of the iconic Brompton bicycle. While visiting their factory in Wandsworth a couple of television crews from the BBC and ITV turned up to record the conveyor belts and workers in action. It turned out this was a common occurrence, principally because it’s the only manufacturing taking place on that scale in London (and the television crews didn’t want to travel any further). According to Papworth, London’s Green Belt could be the reason Brompton is that last factory standing:

Evans and Hartwich suggest that land-intensive industries, such as manufacturing, have declined rapidly, because many have fled the country to locate themselves in a country with lower land prices. If correct, this would be a major challenge to the conventional view that deindustrialisation was the result of supply-side reforms and monetarist policies in the 1980s, instead suggesting that our land use planning laws bore a substantial amount of responsibility for the decline of UK manufacturing in the past half century.

This makes sense. LSE Geography Professor Henry Overman cites some concerning research in an useful blog looking at the case for building on Green Belts:

“Green Belts increase office rents. Cheshire and Hilber (2008) carefully document how planning restrictions in England impose a ‘tax’ on office developments that varies from around 250 per cent (of development costs) in Birmingham, to 400-800 per cent in London. In contrast, New York imposes a ‘tax’ of around 0-50 per cent, Amsterdam around 200 per cent and central Paris around 300 per cent.”

If enacted, the paper’s suggested reforms would provide affordable housing to Generation Rent, more competitive business rents, and the possibility for more manufacturing entrepreneurs to run their businesses out of this country. What’s not to like?

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

New ASI paper: the Green Noose

According to a new ASI paper, written by Tom Papworth, and entitled The Green Noose, we can blame the Green Belt for the UK’s housing woes.

It says:

• Despite academics, politicians, and international organisations recognising that the UK is facing a housing crisis, it is currently far less developed than many imagine, especially when compared to similar countries. Indeed, only two members of the EU 27 have less built environment per capita than the UK: the Netherlands and Cyprus. 90% of land in England remains undeveloped, and just 0.5% would be required to fulfil this decade’s housing needs.

• Green Belts are not the bucolic idylls some imagine them to be; indeed, more than a third of protected Green Belt land is devoted to intensive farming, which generates net environmental costs.

• The concept of ever-expanding urban sprawl is mistaken and pernicious. In addition, Green Belts can give rise to “leap-frog development”, where intermediate patches of land are left undeveloped due to restrictions, a phenomenon indistinguishable from what many understand urban sprawl to be.

• By encouraging urban densification, Green Belts take green space away from those places where it is most valued. Each hectare of city park is estimated to be of £54,000 benefit per year, compared to a mere £889 per hectare for Green Belt land on the fringe of an urban area.

• There are substantial welfare costs of Green Belts. They have made accomodation more expensive and smaller, increased costs for businesses (especially relative to other European cities), and have contributed to the volatility
of house prices.

• The avenue of reform we favour is the complete abolition of the Green Belt, a step which could solve the housing crisis without the loss of any amenity or historical value – if only politicians and planners had the courage to take it.

• Failing this, we conclude that removing Green Belt designation from intensive agricultural land would also enable the building of all the housing required for the foreseeable future, and could help ameliorate the catastrophic undersupply of recent decades.

• In the short term, simply removing restrictions on land 10 minutes’ walk of a railway station would allow the development of 1 million more homes within the Green Belt surrounding London alone.

Click here to read the full press release.

Unemployment, home-ownership and accommodation vouchers outside London

In a much earlier post, Tim Worstall pointed to the findings of Blanchflower & Oswald (2013), which is particularly important when considering that increasing home-ownership is something that the government has been encouraging. They showed “that rises in home ownership lead to three problems: (i) lower levels of labour mobility, (ii) greater commuting times, and (iii) fewer new businesses.” Alarmingly, they found that “rises in the home-ownership rate in a U.S State are a precursor to eventual sharp rises in unemployment in that state… a doubling of the rate of home-ownership in a U.S. State is followed in the long-run by more than a doubling of the later unemployment rate”. They also postulated that since “the time lags are long”, this could explain why “these important patterns are so little-known.” This means that the “negative externalities” felt from housing policy in this time-period may be felt further down the line and that future generations may be in for a nasty unemployment shock.

In the UK, we have lots of council housing but still, we supposedly don’t have enough low-cost housing. Milton Friedman famously suggested that, if we want to continue funding education in a way whilst ensuring that it is of a higher quality than what is currently provided by state schools, we should introduce education vouchers. Analogously, if we insist that society should house those who cannot house themselves, why don’t we introduce accommodation vouchers or housing vouchers which people can spend either on an extremely cheap mortgage (though, admittedly, the claim is that we’re short of low-cost housing) or on going towards rent for another place.

If current tenants of council housing are given the choice between vouchers and their current unit, we may see enough people move out for the council housing itself to be sold to real-estate developers which would, therefore, enable development of more accommodation over and above pre-existing units. This would help plug some of the government’s budget deficit, possibly increase the amount of low-cost housing and ensure dispersion rather than concentration of relative poverty (this last possibility would enable effective local, communal altruism).

Of course, such a policy may not be feasible in London where rents are already very high (due to the government’s ridiculous land-use policies) since accommodation vouchers may only serve to increase them further. However, in the rest of the country, rents are far more reasonable and haven’t grown as quickly as they have in London.

Ultimately, the provision of accommodation vouchers in regions outside of London and the sale of council houses could raise some much-needed revenue and lead to reduced house cost and increased labour mobility at the cost of higher rents.

Right question, wrong solution here

Given that it is Christmas Day an opportunity for us to play The Grinch. There’s a certain amount of truth in the analysis here, although not a great deal. It’s just the solution proposed that is wrong:

Some people in private rental accommodation are having to cut back on food and heating to cope with rising rents, according to research by the National Housing Federation (NHF).

The organisation, which represents housing associations across England, said soaring rents and high deposits were making life increasingly difficult for those locked out of homeownership.

In a survey of 1,183 private tenants it found that 41% of those with children had struggled to pay their rent at least once. Across all tenant households, 31% had been in difficulties.

More than a quarter of the families surveyed said they had cut back on buying food to meet their housing costs, and just under a quarter had cut back on heating.

Well, yes, we’re sure this happens. As it also happens that some in social housing cut back on heating and or food to afford their rents, as those in owner occupied housing cut back on both or either at times in order to pay mortgages or maintenance bills. This is simply a fact of life for anyone at all facing income constraints. As all of us do of course. Our desires are unlimited and our incomes, as with the more general point about economic resources, are limited.

It is, of course, possible to insist that the general cost of housing (of any and all types) is “too high” and thus propose solutions to this perceived problem.

The group called on the government to provide more affordable homes for families on low and middle incomes. Its chief executive, David Orr, said: “We have too many renters just keeping their heads above water, who are being kept awake at night and suffering from stress over the worry of paying the next rent bill.

“The government needs to come up with a bolder, long-term plan for housebuilding so that families across the country can find the homes they need, at a price they can afford.”

And a bold new plan would also be a nice idea. But that call on the government “to provide” is the wrong way to go about this. For it is the government, as we’ve said innumerable times before, with the Town and Country Planning Acts, that is the problem. Those acts artificially restrict the pieces of land upon which housing may be built. Thus housing, as a result of those restrictions, is more expensive than it would be without the restrictions. This is true of any form or sort of housing: owner occupied, rental, social, “affordable” or otherwise.

And the solution is obvious: loosen those restrictions on what may be built where.

As, of course, happened in the 1930s when the scale of housebuilding was what actually dragged the country up out of recession.

That would be a nice seasonal present, would it not? The government solving the housing problem by the government stopping doing what the government has done to create the housing problem?