The housing question isn’t just how many, but where

I usually like Policy Exchange’s work but its new paper on solving the housing crisis is a little disappointing. Its main argument is that “Over one million new homes could be built over the next decade if each of the 353 councils in England built just one garden village of 3,000 new houses”. The arithmetic checks out, but that still wouldn’t do much to solve the housing crisis.

The problem with England’s housing market is not simply that not enough houses are being built. It’s that they’re being built in the wrong places. According to Paul Cheshire, twice as many homes were built in Doncaster and Barnsley (where there isn’t much demand for housing) as in Oxford and Cambridge (where there is) in the five years to 2013. In 2002/03, it was three times as many!

This is why national house construction numbers can often be misleading. The crisis of unaffordable houses is mostly centred on places like London, Oxford, Cambridge and the rest of the South East. People want to live where the jobs are. (As it happens, an older Policy Exchange paper recognised this, suggesting policies designed to make it easier for people to move from North to South.)

Spreading housing development around the country will hence end up doing much less than we might hope. If your problem is a housing shortage in London, building more in Hull won’t help much.

A second problem is that building entirely new villages is expensive, because of the new infrastructure that needs to be built. The report suggests paying for this with levies on the new builds, which just reduces the downward pressure on prices these houses would have. Building all that extra infrastructure is needless when there is already so much empty land around existing train stations to be built on in the South East (enough for one million homes!), where there really is demand for new housing.

I also wonder how much people want to live in villages which really would be very small. At the UK average household size of 2.4, we’re talking about villages of 7,200 people, far enough from existing towns that those residents won’t object to them. As someone who grew up outside an Irish town with a population of 6,666 (seriously), take it from me – these places can be a little dull.

There are 138 authorities in London and the home counties. Building new homes there – even if they had to be in new villages – would be better than nothing, although I don’t know how you’d go about building new villages in central London. Building new homes in places like Scunthorpe and rural Cornwall would be a lot less good, and policies that do not recognise that will distract us from what we really need to do.

Maybe there’s no such thing as a bad policy that results in more housing, but is it too much to ask that they also be houses that people want to live in, in places they want to live?

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.

Paul Mason wants to be an economist

This is ever so slightly strange. Paul Mason has decided that he’d like to be an economist, figure out how the economy works in detail.

If I could rub an empty lager can, and get a genie to appear and grant me one wish for 2015, it would be for something apparently banal but revolutionary: an accurate simulation of the economy.

It would be multilayered: it would model the microeconomics of my home area, allowing me to test the lurid worries of my neighbours about the opening of a second tattoo shop. It would model the real Britain – including the sex work, the cybercrime and the drug deals. And at a macro-level it would model the whole world – from the effects of a factory collapsing on its workers in Bangladesh to those of fast fashion on the consumption habits of teenage girls here.

The reason we need such models is that the ones provided by economics are pretty useless – particularly when modelling instability, complexity and change. Mainstream economic models rely on the 150-year-old assumption that capitalism’s tendency is towards equilibrium, and that everybody acts rationally; they struggle to accommodate sudden shocks. About 20 years ago economists decided to abandon data and go for an ever more abstract series of models that are logically consistent but not tested against facts, and unable to predict real crises.

There’s really only one slight problem with that idea. Hayek showed that, in theory, such detailed planning of an economy simply isn’t possible. Knowledge is local, the centre cannot possible gather enough of it in apposite time scales to be able to produce such models. We end up with the end result that we can only use the economy itself as the model of the economy.

It’s entirely true that not everyone actually believes Hayek on this point. There’s always those who think that just a little more computing power, just a little more scientific socialism, will enable us to overcome this wastefulness of capitalism and markets.

But as the socialists themselves found out, this just isn’t true. Or, sa this great essay points out, In Soviet Union Optimisation Problem Solves You.

I said before that increasing the number of variables by a factor of 1000 increases the time needed by a factor of about 30 billion. To cancel this out would need a computer about 30 billion times faster, which would need about 35 doublings of computing speed, taking, if Moore’s rule-of-thumb continues to hold, another half century. But my factor of 1000 for prices was quite arbitrary; if it’s really more like a million, then we’re talking about increasing the computation by a factor of 1021 (a more-than-astronomical, rather a chemical, increase), which is just under 70 doublings, or just over a century of Moore’s Law.

Now that is talking about planning the economy. But the same is true of modeling it. For if we can model an economy then, as Mason desires, we would be able to plan it. And the reason that we can’t plan it is because we can’t model it. It is just one of these things that we cannot do.

Anyway, full marks to Mason for wanting to understand more about the economy, limited points for wanting to know more about the effects of policy but really, shouldn’t he have known that his desires are impossible before he became an economics editor?