Opinion: The time to confront the housing crisis is now - 1828

This article was first published on 1828.

Since 2010, the UK’s population has risen by well over three million people. Yet we’ve been so bad at housebuilding that the last time we built fewer houses over the same period was when we were fighting the second world war.

The number of new homes being built has been on a consistent downward trend, falling every decade for the last half a century, despite continued population growth. In that light, it’s hardly surprising that we find ourselves in an unprecedented housing crisis.

In terms of real-life significance for most people, the housing crisis dwarfs almost every other issue, including Brexit. It is perhaps the most important political issue we face, yet it remains woefully under-discussed and, on a policy level, broadly unaddressed.

In the 1960s, we succeeded in building around 3.6 million new homes. So far this decade, we have managed a measly 1.1 million. Just twenty years ago, around ten per cent of 30-year-olds lived in private rented accommodation. That figure has now leapt to 40 per cent. In 1991, two-thirds of 25-34-year-olds owned their own home. As of 2016, just 38 per cent have managed to buy property.

There is no enigmatic factor to this crisis or its causes. We know exactly what is driving these effects. There is a near-universal consensus among economists that our housing market faces a supply-side problem.

Quite simply, we are not building anywhere near the levels we need to be. The result is that the average UK home now costs eight times the average wage. Across London and the South East, that figure rises to fifteen times.

The solutions to the housing crisis are no mystery either. We know exactly what we have to do. Part of the problem is that the discourse on this subject is being stifled by the likes of Sadiq Khan, who uses the issue as a profoundly unsubtle Trojan horse for the very worst kind of economic authoritarianism.

The London mayor has taken to calling for rent controls, even though it is nigh on impossible to find a policy that has failed more comprehensively and convincingly every time it has been tried. It has never worked anywhere.

Far from ham-fisted interventionism, the housing market simply needs a reboot. It is crying out for liberation from overbearing planning regulations.

There are, of course, various other steps that could be taken to lighten the burden significantly, such as slashing stamp duty or even scrapping it altogether, to relieve much of the pressure currently faced by first-time buyers in particular.

But liberalising the planning system is also necessary to make it easier for investors to build affordable homes in large quantities. The sheer volume of red tape faced by people who would otherwise be queuing up to pour their money into Britain’s housing market is directly inhibiting progress in this area.

Because, inescapably, the main thrust of any plan to finally address the crisis has to be the building of more homes. That costs money, but it is hard to see how any government could get better value for its cash in any comparable policy area. The incentives for the government to tackle this issue are immense and multi-faceted.

First of all, it would give young people like myself a realistic chance of owning their own home one day. At the moment, that feels very much like a pipe dream, especially in London. There is no reason for that to be the case. We can build new homes more cheaply and efficiently than ever before. It is simply a matter of rolling up our sleeves and getting on with it.

Perhaps the most obvious reason why this issue deserves more attention from those in government is the gold mine of electoral potential that housing brings with it.

It is a peerless vote winner. From 2015-17, the proportion of 30-39-year-olds, sometimes known as “generation rent”, who voted Labour jumped from 34 to 55 per cent. Polling strongly suggests that housing has been catapulted to the top of this generation’s political priorities, beating even the NHS.

Whichever party takes note of this fact soonest and begins to give the housing crisis the attention it so clearly deserves will, before long, find themselves on the receiving end of a cataclysmic electoral boost.

Naturally, as a Conservative, I sincerely hope that it is the current government that takes this opportunity first. There is, however, no reason why Labour, or, indeed, anyone else, could not plug the necessary funds into housing and go on to reap the electoral rewards of that investment from the youth vote in particular.

The green belt is, incontrovertibly, one of the first areas for reform. The categorisation in itself is profoundly unhelpful. The phrase alone invokes idyllic mental images of vast swathes of green and pleasant land when in reality, much of it is the colour of the BBC weather map.

Hundreds of green belt sites are, in fact, not green at all, and are instead ripe for development. Vast numbers of abandoned garages, warehouses, and various other ugly and useless things occupy plots of land designated as green belt, especially in and around London.

Building on it, therefore, does not necessarily involve heavy machinery tearing apart hilly fields and dumping great tower blocks in their place. There is easily enough space for a million new homes in the capital alone on these kinds of sites, including brownfield land, which would go an extremely long way towards making the vast cost of living in London manageable for the young and ambitious.

Of course, building on the green belt is just one part of the solution. There are a wealth of underexplored proposals swilling around in the public domain.

Take, for instance, this year’s report from the Adam Smith Institute on micro-homes for young professionals, allowing much better usage of prime real estate in key locations.

And housing need not be a partisan issue. It is a golden opportunity to build bridges across the political divide.

Last year, Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh wrote movingly on this site about the urgency of the housing crisis. As she said, there is no reason why 80,000 families, including 123,000 children, should find themselves forced to seek out nightly paid temporary accommodation in 21st-century Britain. Unless radical action is taken very soon, this crisis will worsen exponentially.

It is coming to a head much faster than we are confronting it, even though there is very little stopping us. The time to start doing something about it is now.