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Busting the housing supply shortage ‘myth’

Supply is one of the key problems in the UK housing market. Sadly, the latest in-vogue argument is that the perceived housing supply shortage is a misconception. This track of thought has permeated right across the political spectrum. But do these claims hold weight?

Both centrists and the left have bought into the housing supply shortage myth. It is wrong to do so.

Last year the Labour Party produced its ‘Land For The Many’ report. In it all housings ills were laid at the feet of finance and speculation. Namely by the likes of Beth Stratford, Guy Shrubsole and Laurie Macfarlane. They argue there were “more powerful forces, besides supply shortages, putting upward pressure on house prices”. ‘Red tape’ in the planning system? Merely a “discredited theory”.

But this argument has not become just a line for the left. Even centrists from across the globe have bought into the mantra of the ‘housing supply myth’. Both Dr Cameron Murray and Ian Mulheirn of the Tony Blair Institute cited all sorts of claims recently on The Jolly Swagman Podcast. From “look at all these approvals”. To if supply were the issue “rents would be increasing at the same rate as prices”. Or it is the cost of capital doing “most of the heavy lifting” for changes in price. All these claims are false. Misguided at best.

Regulatory supply constraints inherent within the current system have made house prices substantially more volatile. Research by Hilber and Vermeulen found the planning system has been an important causal factor behind England’s high housing prices. It was published in the flagship title of the Royal Economic Society. The Economic Journal.

Of course, undoubtedly more than just supply shortages over the past 30 years has exacerbated house price rises. Particularly given the global trend toward lower interest rates. Yet even those at the Bank of England widely acknowledge lower interest rates are not the sole determining factor of house price inflation. In this blog I set out why as progressives we must give planning more attention, better understand its relationship with housing supply, and acknowledge that solving the housing crisis does indeed require some form of planning reform.

Low interest rates would not explain 90% of house price growth if supply was more responsive

“Soaring UK property prices are due to low interest rates, not lack of housing supply, Bank of England finds” states yet another tabloid headline. Housing supply “will not solve the housing crisis” clamours Ian Mulheirn. If there were two more opposite statements of the truth these are it.

The low-interest rates “fuel” house price rises line of argument has caught up far too many economic commentators. Mulheirn claims institutions, lending policies, narratives, all interfere with the transmission that is the tide of global interest rates. Supply though? Not the answer.

Ian’s claim simply bears no logical validity. First and foremost, the same Bank of England report that acknowledges low interest rates have been the key explanatory factor of house prices rises, does not validate his own understanding. The doubling in house prices over the past 30 years would have been different if supply were more responsive to changes in price.

It suggested that had we had doubled the responsiveness of our housing supply to changes in price, and assumed lower income elasticity (i.e. the same change in income triggered a smaller percentage increase in demand), house price growth would have been cut by almost half. House price growth would have amounted to 88%. In contrast to the 173% modeled by the Bank of England on the current assumptions.

Income growth would have explained 55% of the increase. Decreases in interest rates explained just 40%. Therefore if supply was more responsive then both centrist and left-wing economist claims of mortgage lending being the key driver of house prices would simply not hold true.

In Japan housing affordability has improved despite a low interest rate environment

We can look to other countries and see low interest rates do not always explain housing unaffordability. For example, Japan has had low interest rates since the 1990s. Yet Japan’s price-to-income ratio has decreased by 31.3% since the year 2000. Over the same period the UK the price-to-income ratio has increased by 35.7%.

Cheap credit simply puts rocket boosters on demand in an already supply constrained market. Nothing more. Progressive housing policymakers need to recognise there is more to increases in house prices, and subsequently land values, than mortgage lending alone.

Antigrowth land regulations hand massive windfalls to landowners

Beth Stratford, one of the authors of Labour’s ‘Land for the Many’, claims the planning system is “counter intuitively” not the major driver of recent land price inflation. Despite claiming “housing is unaffordable because the land underneath our homes has ballooned in value 544% since 1995”.  Guy Shrubsole, argues that “ripping up the Green Belt and planning regulations will simply hand massive windfalls to landowners”.

Both are sadly defending the very man-made regulations that capture value into land. Enrico Moretti from UC Berkeley argues fixed or equitably anaemic housing supply results in productivity increases capitalised into land values. On the contrary if housing supply were infinitely on tap to meet demand then these productivity gains would go into workers’ wages. This is a given where there are fundamental economic drivers at play.

Not to mention what we have witnessed. In Central London for example, residual land values increased by over 600% in 20 years. Sounds to me like under the status quo landowners have been capturing massive windfalls for quite some time.

Research by Albert Saiz tells us the biggest determinant of poor housing supply responsiveness is geography. This is predominantly due to the physical constraints on land availability. Poor responsiveness of housing supply occurs indirectly due to increased land values resultant from this scarcity of land. Geography also indirectly creates higher incentives for antigrowth regulations such as the Green Belt. Of which ‘neighbourhood defenders’ like Guy Shrubsole and the CPRE vociferously protect.

Prices and past growth is empirically linked to planning regulations

Saiz tells us prices and past growth is derived from both physical and man-made (planning) regulations. Ian Mulheirn was presented this widely acclaimed study during his feature on The Jolly Swagman podcast.

But what did Ian Mulheirn make of the Saiz study dating back to 2010? He embarrassingly admitted he has never heard of it. Although still acknowledges there is relationship between prices and supply. Despite not recalling the paper Mulheirn claimed studies like this get the “order of magnitude wrong”. But we know this to be false. The assertion low-interest rates hold a higher magnitude does not hold true if supply responsiveness were more in line with international norms.

The link between responsiveness of supply and planning is not widely understood by housing supply shortage critics

We know poorly designed planning policies restrict supply responsiveness. Cross-country research by the OECD found that housing supply responsiveness is related to regulations on land-use and planning.

Professor Ed Glaeser found in Greater Boston the decline in new construction, and associated increase in price, reflected increasing man-made regulatory barriers to building. Based on his empirical analysis he calls to ease housing regulation to increase supply.

Shrubsole, Stratford and Mulheirn all ignore or deny the empirical link between restrictive antigrowth land use regulations, lower levels of housing stock expansion, and exacerbated house price growth. While in places with relatively fewer barriers to construction the results are moderate increases in house price growth and a larger expansion of housing stock. Development professionals understand these international comparisons. And funnily enough, so do landowners.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency analysed a US data set of 14 million land values. It found supply restrictions and levels of land price positively correlated. Regulatory burdens and topographic difficulty in building result in an increase in the price of land. It is the largest dataset to suggest planning regulations impede the responsiveness of supply.

Unlike other countries Britain keeps making land more scarce in areas of high demand rather than expanding its supply

We must recognise the UK’s discretionary planning system is deepening wealth inequality by design. Political reluctance to review the Green Belt in terms of suitability for new homes has meant these restrictions have persisted for a prolonged period of time. All the while British urban conurbations have grown.

Other countries regularly review Urban Growth Boundaries (UGB) for expansion. For example, in the USA the state of Oregon expanded its UGB no less than three dozen times since it was first drawn. In the UK, the Green Belt has doubled since 1979. Instead of releasing land as our cities grow, we have done the complete opposite.

Thinly traded markets demonstrate the scarcity of land

The Investment Property Forum (IPF) notes the paucity of information on residential land values in the UK reflects the thinly traded nature of its land market. Being thinly traded means it cannot be sold easily without a significant change in price. This is due to there being a limited number of buyers or sellers.

Laurie Macfarlane believes this paucity of information makes it “difficult for policymakers and market participants to make informed decisions”. I argue to the contrary. Actors are making rational informed decisions. And those who are in the know are in the know. Landowners know in the long-run the economic incentives derived from the planning system will rule in their favour and that prices are sticky.

Developers on the other hand do face difficulties. Mostly with the planning system. In Britain developers can propose something not forbidden by the local plan, yet still lawfully be denied the right to build.

The planning system in Britain forces developers and planning authorities to haggle over height and affordable housing. Once a scheme is consented the permission can be sold on to crystallize the planning gain. The current system drives behaviour that plays on this uncertainty.

Some landowners (but not all) try to capture uplift from planning rather than build out. Particularly in times where it has become apparent more and more people cannot afford to buy in places they grew up in. The lack of market confidence has led to record levels of unsold stock.

Land traders and middlemen punt around a thinly traded market consented schemes. Where often it can be slim pickings. This is in the hope another developer will take a view on height, massing, affordable housing once again. If house prices have moved on, they can capitalize these gains into land value. Simply stating 9 out of 10 applications are approved does not absolve the planning system for not seeing homes built out. It is at the heart of driving landowner economic incentives.

The current system has failed – how should Labour respond?

Anthony Breach draws parallels of the current system to the failed former Eastern Bloc. Our “Soviet-style planning system” has created crippling shortages of housing through institutional design. All ratified by political will. It is the case-by-case discretionary planning permission system that has created shortage economy in our housing market. This needs to change.

To grapple with the planning system Breach recommends a move to reconnect local demand through a rules-based zoning system. He claims should a developer propose a compliant scheme within zoning, design code, and building regulations then it must result in a building permit. Development proposed in line with neighbourhood plans that have been consulted on with the community will be determined by the need for new homes. Rather than by how much land has been rationed by the local authority and remains unsanctioned by local opposition. This gives the market certainty and takes the haggling out of land values.

In today’s context Breach’s recommendations should be revisited with a renewed focus on how such a planning system interacts with housing and the wider community. It is a myth to claim there is no housing shortage. And a myth to suggest planning plays no role in the responsiveness of supply to changes in price. We must turn to the academic literature and an empirical evidence base to inform our decision-making. Breach’s proposals may just have the answer.

Duncan Bowie argues the Labour Party has in the past failed to grapple with the planning system. He also said the Labour Housing Group should focus acutely on the relationship between housing supply and planning. I agree this needs to change. Labour needs to recognise and debate the positive and negative consequences of discretionary planning. Perhaps Breach’s proposals to the Labour Planning Commission can garner some further attention from the left. After all, they may be more relevant now than ever before.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Chris Worrall</span></strong>
Chris Worrall

Editor of Red Brick. Land Acquisition, Guild Living. Non-Executive Director of Housing for Women. Labour Housing Group, Executive Committee.

Previously Investment and Finance Manager at both Quintain and Thor Equities. Chris has expertise in developing new residential investment strategies and real estate development finance. He writes in a personal capacity.

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To make the recovery fair we need to tax land

Landowners aren’t paying for the crisis. But they should be paying for the recovery.

Amid the carnage of lost jobs, bankrupt businesses and an overrun health service, one thing hasn’t changed: rent is still due.

That is not to say it shouldn’t be – as others have argued, there are wide ranging consequences from cancelling rent, that could have adverse effects for working people, and the labour movement as a whole.

But as with so many parts of our economy, landlords profit from others work. When someone takes a risk and starts a business, property values go up. When you renovate your house, property values go up. When the government invests in schools, transport, or a public park, property values go up.

And every time property values go up, so does rent.

When we pay rent, we’re not only paying landlords for the property we live in, we’re paying for our own taxes being invested in parks, services, and roads. We’re paying a windfall to landowners, regardless of the work they put into the property, or the quality of the service they provide.

Land isn’t like other parts of the economy. If people need more TVs, cars or computers, we can always make more TVs, cars or computers. But we can’t make more land. We have to do as much as we can with what we have. So as people need more housing, and more importantly, housing close to their work, friends and family, they become willing to pay more in rent – driving up prices to extortionate levels.

It’s why, even as jobs have been lost, businesses have closed and services strained, rent has stayed the same. As we begin to rewire our economy after the crisis, we need to recognise that landlords have earned

Rather than use a land tax, as some have proposed, to revamp local government funding, it should instead raise money for central government. It should be set at the same rate – say 1% of land value per year – across the country.

When property values go up – be it from government investment or new jobs and businesses in the area, landlords pay more tax, because their asset became more valuable.  Doing so would be vital to reorienting our economy in the wake of our current crisis.

First, it would make tax fairer – shifting from those who earn, to those who own. Our government is funded on the backs of those who earn a wage, rather than those who pay their wages, or the owners of assets. A land tax would begin to change that.

Since 1997, the average house price has risen 259%, while the average earnings have only risen 68%.[1] If a land tax is used to fund a tax cut for working people, it will assuage fears of an increased tax burden, and leave the landowning middle class no worse off than they were before.

Second, it would redistribute wealth to the regions. Land in poorer areas and outside the main cities is worth less, and so would be taxed less. The effect would be more investment in rural areas, as businesses and workers alike respond to the incentives, and purchase land away from the main centres of economic growth.

Third, it would help counter the housing crisis. A land value tax, which should apply only to unimproved land, rather than the property as a whole, is designed specifically to encourage landowners to build more houses. When you renovate your kitchen, the value of the land underneath your home stays the same, and so your tax bill doesn’t change.

The more people living on a plot of land, the lower the tax bill per person will be, which makes higher density apartments more affordable than singe family houses. Denser cities are better for the climate, easier to get around in, and most importantly, have more housing for those most in need.

Finally, it would lower rents for everyone. Rents, which are driven not by the quality of housing, but by the value of land, would already be helped by encouraged density and discouraged property speculation. But unlike other taxes, landlords can’t pass a land value tax onto tenants.

The market is already so skewed towards landlords, that rent is based on what tenants can pay, not the expenses of landlords. And a tax applied to all land is a tax that cannot be avoided – you can’t store land in the Cayman Islands, nor can you make less of it.

Directly, rent makes up as much as half of the cost of living for working families. Indirectly, it shows up in everything from groceries to electronics. In London, a third of the price of a cup of coffee is just paying the rent.

Skyrocketing rents have crushed the high street and the family chequebook, priced aspiring workers out of jobs, and a generation out of its first homes. As we rebuild our economy in the wake of a pandemic, it’s time landowners paid their fair share.

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>Joe Pagani</strong></span>
Joe Pagani

Joe Pagani is a political strategist with a background as a New Zealand Labour Party activist and political commentator.
He is a member of Bethnal Green and Bow CLP. 


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/mar/17/average-house-price-times-annual-salary-official-figures-ons

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We cannot borrow our way out of the housing crisis: mortgage credit is part of the problem

We cannot borrow our way out of the housing crisis: mortgage credit is part of the problem

One of the key issues highlighted in my new book about ‘Generation Rent’ is how mortgage lending drives the UK housing crisis. I am far from the first person to point this out: my understanding of the problem is drawn from the research of the think tank Positive Money, IIPP economist Josh Ryan-Collins, property cycles expert Philip J Anderson, and many others.

But no-one in government seems to be taking it seriously. As a result, a dangerous policy proposal in the 2019 Conservative manifesto has gone largely unchallenged: the promise to support the mortgage industry in delivering long-term low fixed-rate mortgages for first-time buyers, which will ‘slash the cost of deposits’. This may sound like an enticing idea, but in practice it will only pour more petrol on the fire.

The truth about where mortgages come from

When you take out a mortgage, the lender conjures new money into existence. The money doesn’t come from other customers’ savings accounts, nor does it come from bank ‘reserves’: it is created from nothing.

The main constraint on mortgage eligibility is the borrower’s ability to repay the debt. Effectively, a mortgage is a large withdrawal from The Bank of Future You. And while you can typically only borrow 90%-95% of the property value, this does little to keep mortgage borrowing in check, as property prices can rise in response to expanding mortgage credit and vice versa.

When property and mortgages collide

When cheap and readily-available mortgage credit meets residential property, house prices shoot up. This is because the supply of land, which accounts for about 70% of the value of a home, is fixed. No market can produce new land in response to the demand for housing created by expanding mortgage credit. And you cannot take out a mortgage against a home that hasn’t been built yet.

So, what you get is an ever-expanding supply of money chasing after a finite amount of property. Maybe we should think of it this way: rather than house prices going up, the value of money itself has been systematically trashed relative to the value of property.

What if we pour new money into new homes instead?

This was the rationale behind the government’s Help to Buy Equity Loan scheme, which was reserved for new-builds only. The idea was that, because the new loans would be used to increase the housing supply, the scheme wouldn’t lead to house price inflation.

But since the scheme was rolled out via huge private housebuilders, these companies were able to control the supply of housing by hoovering up as much land as possible and drip-feeding their (often shoddy) new-builds onto the property market at a slow enough rate to keep sale prices artificially high. In consequence, housebuilders’ profits have swelled, and Which? recently reported a trend of Help to Buy homes falling in value, despite rising local house prices. Most worryingly of all, Help to Buy mortgage arrears are running at six times the ordinary rate.

A culture of land speculation entrenches the issue

Maybe the land-credit feedback cycle would be dampened if it were possible to take out a mortgage to fund a self-build property. But to acquire land, you normally have to satisfy a landowner’s price expectations (claiming vacant or unregistered land in this country is almost impossible). These expectations are likely to have been warped by the speculative nature of the land market.

Most landowners know that, under current rules, a piece of agricultural land can become around 92 times more valuable with a grant of planning permission for residential buildings. If the seller doesn’t like the price on offer, they can withhold their land indefinitely with no consequences.

A whole ‘land promotion’ side-industry has sprung up to enable speculators to share in the planning uplift, using legal mechanisms like ‘option agreements’ and ‘promotion agreements’ to reduce risk and increase profits. As a result, land is scarce and acquiring it is both costly and difficult, despite the fact that only around 6% of UK land mass is actually built on.

Why planning reform won’t solve the problem

Perhaps because land speculation is so rampant in Britain, the planning system is currently painted as the big bad wolf of the housing crisis amongst conservative thinkers. There is a belief that the land market will magically start behaving like any other free market if we scrap the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. But for all its flaws, the planning system is not the fundamental issue here, even if there is a genuine case for planning reform.

In Victorian Britain, slum housing, rising rents and overcrowding plagued the Capital and other areas of rapid economic growth. This had nothing to do with rules and regulations (which were next to non-existent), and everything to do with the power that comes with land monopoly. The poor got poorer and the landed got richer: ‘twas ever thus.

We need to keep talking about land and credit

The only way to permanently stop the price of property ballooning out of all proportion is to tax the land beneath it. A land value tax could replace council tax (a ‘highly regressive’ policy that falls hardest on the least well-off), business rates and Stamp Duty Land Tax, and would disincentivise land speculation. It could raise much-needed revenue for public services hit by austerity cutbacks. Or it could even be redistributed in the form of a ‘citizen’s dividend’ or Universal Basic Income.

This idea has garnered support from across the political spectrum, but has traditionally been opposed by governments beholden to wealthy landowners and a predominantly homeowning public. So, since it may take some time to get the electorate to come round to the idea of a land value tax, a more urgent and politically possible course of action would be to reform the land acquisition process, so that local authorities can afford to build genuinely affordable social housing at scale.

In addition, the Right to Buy policy must be scrapped immediately to stem the loss of social housing – especially given that nearly half of the homes sold are ending up in the private rented sector and contributing to the soaring cost of housing benefit. The shortage of genuinely low-cost homes is acute; the number of people stuck on social housing waiting lists stands at well over 1 million.

For too long, spiralling house prices have been dismissed as an inevitable force of nature, or the product of too little housebuilding, or too much immigration – even though research from the Bank of England has concluded that the quadrupling of house prices over the last 40 years is ‘more than accounted for’ by falling interest rates. It may be dry, knotty and difficult to fit into a soundbite. But until we increase public understanding of the land and credit feedback cycle, the housing debate will only keep going around in circles.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Chloe Timperley</span></strong>
Chloe Timperley

Author of “Generation Rent: Why You Can’t Buy a Home (Or Even Rent a Good One)”. ORDER: http://bit.ly/2AX2LhE

Chloe’s professional background is in financial planning, which involves analysing pensions and investments. This led her to delve into how the financial sector sits at the heart of Britain’s housing crisis. During her research, Chloe went undercover at landlord events, spoke to MPs and activists, and joined a tenants’ union.

She also listened to the stories of scores of tenants who — like her — remain stuck against their wishes in the private rented sector.

Now, she wants to shift the housing debate away from simple narratives of supply vs. demand, and towards the underlying mechanisms that drive our dysfunctional land and housing markets.

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Making land deliver

Last week saw the launch of ‘Making land deliver’, a new report from Network Homes proposing three big ideas to reduce land costs for providers of social and affordable housing. I took part in a panel discussion along with the report’s co-author, Reuben Young, Rico Wojtulewicz from the House Builders Association and Cllr Shama Tatler from Brent.

There is no doubting the importance and timeliness of the land reform agenda, and on this our panel was unanimous. Since 1995, the value of land owned by UK households has grown by an astounding 583%, while the combined value of the assets overlying land (i.e. buildings) has risen at less than half this rate. We are effectively channelling ever more of our national wealth into the hands of those who own a fixed supply of land. This represents a significant challenge for any government hoping to build, build, build its way out of a Covid recession.

 ‘Making land deliver’ suggests a three-pronged attack on the land value problem:

  1. Allow local councils, Homes England, and the Greater London Authority to compulsorily purchase land at existing use value.
  2. Consider social value and market value when selling public land.
  3. Reform the system of developer contributions to affordable housing.

Network Homes are right to look to the rules on Compulsory Purchase Order compensation for a mechanism to moderate the land market – an issue discussed in detail elsewhere on this blog. Removing ‘hope value’ from CPO compensation awards would tackle a critical barrier to solving the housing crisis in England and Wales.

However, I would caution that Network Homes’ specific call for compensation to be reduced to ‘existing use value’ is likely to conflict with Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which rightly requires compensation at market value. Instead, the UK should simply align itself with other ECHR signatories including Germany, France and Netherlands, by excluding potential development value from definitions of ‘market value’ for CPO compensation purposes. Removing ‘hope value’ would have the effect of reducing awards to levels closer to ‘existing use values’, while still fairly compensating landowners.

Secondly, public bodies considering land disposals should consider social value as well as market value. The government’s Public Land for Housing Programme so far boasts a build out rate of just 15% over the decade that it has been running, and just 6% of the homes planned for these sites will be for social rent. Reviewing and clarifying ‘best consideration’ rules to ensure social value is paramount in decisions about how to use public land is an obvious win.

But the really fresh thinking comes in the third proposal: to replace the Section 106 system for delivering affordable housing on market-led schemes in England with a new, ‘un-gameable’ and non-negotiable system of developer contributions. It works like this:

  • Councils set an affordable housing tax rate for all development in their area.
  • Developers submit a Gross Development Value, on which they will pay the local tax rate.
  • That GDV is used to set the price at which the council can buy homes on the scheme on completion for use as social and affordable housing.

A developer could submit a ‘pessimistic’ GDV to pay less tax, but would then be required to sell homes to the council at ‘pessimistic’ values. This balancing of incentives is the beauty of the proposal. However, there are some thorny issues to work through.

Firstly, this system appears to leave developers in control of the type, size and design of the homes they will build, with councils having only the right to purchase those homes at a pre-set price at the end of the process. There is no guarantee that developers will build the right homes for meeting local housing need, or even that they will meet minimum space standards for social housing. True, councils could spend their tax revenues on delivering the right homes elsewhere – but this relies on Network Homes’ first two recommendations to provide an alternative source of land right-priced for social and affordable housing.

Secondly, the intention to balance power between developers and councils through this proposal may be undermined by the broader planning system. Could a council find itself under pressure to purchase homes of the wrong type or at the wrong price to prevent sites stalling in this system? If that council was worried about how to satisfy its Housing Delivery Test and so avoid losing its planning powers, perhaps. This could be resolved by capping the price which can be paid for affordable housing, for example using plan-stage viability assessments when allocating land.

Despite my quibbles, new thinking from social housing providers is extremely welcome here. Network’s ‘Making land deliver’ follows on the heels of its 2019 report into barriers to social rent delivery for HAs. Both reports provide valuable insights from the front-line of housing delivery, and crucial back up for non-practitioners like me who are campaigning on these issues. I would absolutely encourage other social housing providers to share their experiences and ideas.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Rose Grayston</span></strong>
Rose Grayston

Rose has 10 years of experience in providing policy, research and strategic communications support to progressive campaigns and their leaders. 

She has managed and led successful campaigns to reform English planning rules to incentivise the delivery of affordable homes, to reduce borrowing rates for local authority house-building, and to build political and public support for reform of England’s broken land and house-building systems.