For years this country has managed the difficult trick of building too few homes while losing too much countryside. In response, the government imposes ever-higher housing targets on local authorities.
But this will not help. It is easy to set targets, much harder to get houses built. And there is a fatal flaw in the government’s approach: local authorities can plan for housing, but they do not have the capacity themselves to build houses, and certainly not on the scale required.
For years, debates on housing supply have centred on how many houses we should build and where they should go. They have centred, in particular, on the planning system – free marketeers arguing that the way to get more houses built is to weaken the planning system and make more greenfield land available.
Battles over the planning system and the proposed location of new housing dominated my 13 years in charge of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). But far too little attention has been paid to the question of who would build the houses.
The small and medium-sized enterprises which 30 years ago built 40% of new homes now build 12% and falling. Local authority output is beginning to creep up from a pitifully low base, but it is still a fraction of what is needed.
Those who argued that planning was the cause of the housing crisis overlooked the stark fact that, for 35 years after World War Two, the public sector built at least 100,000 new homes a year. From 1951 to 1979, 48% of new homes in the UK were built for social rent.
Today, councils are discouraged from building, housing associations are starved of cash and small builders are struggling. Which leaves a few big firms dictating to government – dribbling out supply; wriggling out of affordable housing obligations; spurning brownfield sites in favour of green fields; building poor quality, energy inefficient homes that will need retrofitting in a few years’ time.
In this context of unequal power, jacking up housing targets is positively damaging. The big house builders have no interest in increasing output dramatically, but they can use the targets to pressure local authorities to compromise on the quality of building and placemaking.
It does not have to be like this. My radical proposals for how we can build more homes, of the right sort, and in the least damaging locations are outlined in a new book – How to build houses and save the countryside.
Many of the ideas about land value capture and public supply are borrowed from Shelter. When Shelter and CPRE can make common cause, it must be time to listen.
Shaun Spiers, executive director, Green Alliance and former chief executive, Campaign to Protect Rural England