Housing: too little, but not too late

The political and economic headlines we read of 2013 appeared diverse, whilst centring around two major concepts: That people are struggling to get by, and that the state is unable to reduce its welfare output. Much made mention of a ‘cost-of-living crisis’ or railed against payday lenders. Many column inches were afforded to energy prices, the bedroom tax and predictions that ‘generation Y’ would be poorer than their parents. The government pressed on with the benefit cap, expressed their desire to limit benefits for the young, and to charge migrants for using the NHS.

All of the headlines however, were merely symptoms of a problem that has received far too little airtime. The housing shortage in Britain, is the reason why most of us have less left in our pockets at the end of the month, and the reason why the government’s welfare bill cannot be tamed. The Guardian is running a story on Fergus Wilson, a landlord who is evicting all his tenants on housing benefit; it has a rather bumbling article by Patrick Collinson which calls for state intervention and rent controls as its apparent riposte. However, The Guardian’s response, much like that of the political establishment, is way off the mark.

The problem with all the major parties on housing is, rather paradoxically, that they have a policy on it. There is no page on parties’ websites dedicated to food, or clothes or any other necessity. The market suffices in those essential areas, and it would do in housing too, were politicians and bureaucrats not preventing the market from functioning.

The Conservatives’ housing approach is manifested through their flagship ‘Help To Buy’ policy. Effectively a scheme in which the government will underwrite the mortgages of those who otherwise couldn’t have afforded their house. This entails ordinary taxpayers – soldiers, nurses, teachers etc. – paying taxes, in order to allow what are mostly upper middle class people, to buy houses they couldn’t otherwise afford. This provides government-backed artificial demand in the economy, and keeps house prices high. Good news for the wealthy homeowners and hedge funds who donate to the Tory party’s coffers, bad news for everyone else.

The Lib-Dem’s policy consists of a healthy dose of anti-Westminster populism, and then the devolution of planning permission to local, rather than regional councils, in order to make decisions on house building more local, but no less bureaucratic. It goes no way to solving the problem of why there are so few houses being built. It does however appeal to the party’s core which is suspicious of central government and pine for more local-level decision making. It may appease the party; it won’t appease the financial woes of the people.

Labour – as outlined by Ed Miliband’s recent statement – have decided that councils need to be able to expand and stop withholding planning permission. The latter being a little closer to an actual solution. Furthermore they have ‘land-hoarders’ in their sights, as the latest bête-noire to deflect attention away from the fact it is successive governments, rather than builders, who are responsible for the current housing malaise. It goes no way to explaining why the thousands of landowners, who would gleefully sell their land for development should buyers be able to build on it, are prevented so by councils in the grip of NIMBYish Britain at its most pernicious. Homeowners are, by and large, wealthy and politically engaged. They pressure councils and more importantly vote en masse. Their major concern is that the value of their property continues to rise.

UKIP’s policy page promulgates a society in which those whose parents or grandparents were born locally should get priority in social housing. Andrew Charalambous, UKIP’s housing spokesman states “We need to see more social housing made available,” which is all rather baffling for a supposedly libertarian party. It doesn’t explain how they would pay for this surge in social house building, given their commitment to sweeping tax decreases, coupled with huge military spending increases, leaves Britain according to most calculations further in the red. All the more confusing for a self proclaimed ‘libertarian’ party.

UKIP take aim at immigrants for creating the housing shortage. This is ostensibly unsurprising given their anti-immigration policies, but they are the only party to invoke some analysis of the market for the state of housing. They are, of course, completely wrong to try to pin our housing woes on immigrants. Demand for housing isn’t the problem, supply is.

Since the late 1970’s the number of houses being built in England has plummeted, due mostly to reduction in the number of council houses built. However, alongside the shift away from state-built housing, there was no liberalisation of the rest of the housing market. Policies like the green belt, which too often protects land of little or no natural beauty and value, and planning permission laws, make it impossible and expensive to build sufficient housing in Britain. Like in any market, when supply cannot rise to meet demand, prices will rise. The private sector would be more than capable of providing the level of housing necessary for a flourishing competitive market if only the myriad of government policy designed to inflate house prices was removed.

Talk of rent-controls is unhelpful. Private landlords need to be able to make profit as that is what incentivises them to build better housing, to attract higher paying customers. It is landlords, rather than tenants or individual homeowners, who often have the required capital to make investments to improve the dwellings they wish to rent out. Secondly, we need to get away from talk of needing ‘enough’ housing. There is not ‘enough’ food suppliers so that everyone can go to one each; or ‘enough’ supermarkets so that each person can shop at one per week. There are, what the market requires, which is a number of eateries or supermarkets so that consumers can choose what is best for them, whether that be in terms of quality, price or variety. What is needed in terms of housing, is a level where individuals can make choices about where they wish to live, and the pressures of providing desirable living spaces are passed onto landlords. Rather than the current situation, in which low-grade, often damp and mouldy housing is rented out for lack of any alternative. There needs to be a surplus of housing so that actual competition between building companies and between landlords is created out of a desire to sell, or rent their properties, when pitted against those of their competitors. The knock on effect of that is better quality, more plentiful and cheaper housing for everyone. Only a free market can provide the competitive forces that drive that.

But this goes beyond housing. The extortionate rents and mortgages, that government’s incompetent policies help to maintain, do untold damage, and create a plethora of negative externalities. The extra hours parents have to work to afford todays rental prices and mortgages, are often hours not spent with their children, not stimulating their young and malleable minds. The money spent on higher rents and mortgages, is money not spent on broadening their children’s horizons and education, but passed on to wealthy landlords, bloated by government subsidy. The loans taken out with payday lenders – who are a frequently godsend to struggling renters – can often lead to individuals being denied mortgages in the future, not as a result of failing to pay back, but merely as a result of having taken out a loan with Wonga, QuickQuid et al. Government is having to spend more and more on housing benefit, to subsidise rocketing rental prices; this is money that could be spent on making university more affordable for our brightest but more underprivileged students, or for better equipping our troops on the frontline.

The two themes of the political year: individuals struggling to get by and government being forced to spend too heavily on welfare, can be traced back to our failed, interventionist housing policy. The opportunity cost of this is huge, everything from poorer students being denied the chance to study, to kids missing quality time with parents. Like the extortionate rents and mortgages that characterise the effects of the policy, it is one we can no longer afford.

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