In 2021, the Conservatives set themselves a target of 300,000 new houses (to be built by the middle of the decade), but in 2022, the current Secretary of State responsible for housing, Michael Gove, backtracked when confronted by a rebellion by Tory backbenchers. Solving the country’s housing problems is not a simple thing to achieve. It’s not helped that we’ve had 16 Ministers of State for Housing since 2010. At the time of writing, the current incumbent, Lee Rowley, is the David Tennant of the bunch; this is his second time being cast in the role. Is this kind of turnover really in the best interests of a nation in need of so many new homes?
A major reason why we’ve had a housing crisis for as long as most people can remember is because it seems impossible to solve without upsetting people. So little gets achieved, and we end up with a cynical plate-spin exercise where success counts as reaching the next election with a wobbling but still intact platter.
Why is housing such a difficult nut to crack?
Let’s consider the scale of the problem. Both main political parties have been talking about the need to build 300,000 new homes each year. If that sounds like a lot, it is. The total number of homes in Oxfordshire is 275,000, and building a small county’s worth of homes each year is no small task. And it’s not just the actual construction that we need to consider, as these homes need to be where people want to live, and they need to have appropriate facilities and connections.
The New Towns Act of 1946 reflected the need for post-war reconstruction but also acknowledged that simply adding to London’s sprawl wasn’t the answer. Instead, we saw a total of 27 new towns emerge, including the likes of Stevenage, Crawley, Bracknell, Hemel Hempstead, Peterlee, and Runcorn. Milton Keynes was one of the later creations and went on to become the largest, with some 117,000 households today.
England’s biggest new town since Milton Keynes is Northstowe, near Cambridge. Here, around 1,200 homes have been built out of a planned 10,000, although some six years after the first house was built, it still has no shop, pub, doctor’s surgery, or café. It does have a post box.
Despite its growing pains, Northstowe serves to underline the scale of the challenge. The village or town is on a 20-year journey to reach its 10,000th home, yet we need the equivalent of 30 Northstowes to be built every year if we’re to meet the housing target. And that’s no mean feat, even if you had lots of places to put them all – places where nobody minds you building a new town.
The simple truth is that everyone would quite like the housing crisis to be solved, but few are happy to have new houses built near them. We may like to think differently, but most of us are NIMBYs at heart, and as many local MPs will confirm, there will always be people willing to get well and truly exercised if you try and build pretty much anything, anywhere.
Changing the game
The next general election can be held no later than 25 working days after 17 December 2024, when parliament will be automatically dissolved. So, at some point between now and 28 January 2025, we will be asked to go to our polling stations. And during that time, we will hear a lot of talk from all parties about housing. But will we hear anything different? Will someone from one side recognise that the other lot may have the beginnings of a good idea? Will there be any admission of common ground?
When you need to make difficult decisions, particularly when you risk alienating some of the voting population, then party politics usually gets in the way. Politicians’ thoughts turn to the polling booth rather than solving the problem at hand. This is because the biggest issue with the housing crisis is that it can’t be solved within a single parliamentary term. Five years simply isn’t long enough; it will have to be a 10- to 20-year plan, minimum.
In my view, there is a relatively simple solution. Take housing off the political agenda and establish a cross-party group that will be responsible for recommending a solution and then implementing it. In this way, the housing agenda is removed from the short-term party politics that has seen so little progress and instead becomes a long-term solution that all parties have signed up to, with an agreement that the implementation does not get derailed, irrespective of any change of government.
There will always be some members of the public ready to be outraged, no matter what is proposed. It won’t be easy to get everyone on board and to work out the terms of engagement. But no significant change has come easily.
Ritchie Clapson CEng is an established developer, author, industry commentator, and co-founder of the leading property development training company propertyCEO.