Andrew Rawnsley gets part of this right. It is indeed true that the 1930s were the last time that private housebuilding was putting up those 300,000 houses a year we think we need, or at least we'd like to have. However, he entirely misses the why of how this was so. Even though he links to a piece in his own paper which points it out very clearly. Concerning Neville Chamberlain:
The interesting question for today is how such a failure became prime minister in the first place. The answer is that he was once a success. He rose to the top on the back of a great reputation as a Tory social reformer. One thing he was particularly good at was housing. Planning for housing. Improving housing. Promoting social housing. Stimulating housebuilding by the private sector. He made his national name in the 1920s as health minister, a position he used to revolutionise planning, expand provision for the poor and get more homes built. His preoccupation with bricks and mortar began as mayor of Birmingham and continued when he was chancellor. The number of houses built during his time at the Treasury rose dramatically. Many of them are the 1930s semi-detached homes that still put a roof over the head of hundreds of thousands of people, particularly around London and southern England.
I commend that successful Chamberlain to Theresa May and Philip Hammond. As they wrangle with each other and cabinet colleagues about what to do with next month’s budget, the prime minister and chancellor should emulate what the Tory with the brolly did about housing.
We agree entirely, of course we do. But Rawnsley is insistent that this means government must be doing something about it which isn't the lesson to be taken at all. For as he links to, this is the reason it all worked back then:
Houses were cheap because the supply of land for housing was very elastic, which in turn meant that there was no incentive for developers to sit on large land banks. Underpinning the availability of land for house-building was an almost complete absence of land-use planning restrictions which applied to only about 75,000 acres in 1932; the draconian provisions of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act were still to come.
In the 1930s those private housebuilders were free to build houses people wanted to live in, where they wanted to live. Absent those draconian provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act. As we've been saying for many a year now the answer is thus obvious - get rid of those draconian restrictions by blowing up the Town and Country Planning Act and successors.
Rawnsley's mistake, one shared with all too many others, is to think that the solution to a problem is that government must do something. When all too often the solution is that government do less, or stop doing something. As here, when government stops restricting housebuilding then more houses will be built.
And we do want more houses built don't we? Houses people want to live in, where people want to live? Why wouldn't we use the method which managed to achieve this last time?