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The Great Housing Con

December 5, 2017 6:25 PM

From the recent political hot air you would think the government or the opposition are about to build a lot more houses. This is a complete con trick. No government of any political persuasion has built a single house for years. Nor has any local authority built more than the odd handful. Developers build houses not governments. The government may be pressing for a huge increase in housebuilding and I agree we need more housing to meet local needs. But that actually builds nothing.

The result of this was that Canterbury City Council devised a local plan which claimed to double our rate of housebuilding almost entirely on greenfield sites on the fringe of our urban areas.

Mrs May's speech on 4 October talked about building 25,000 houses for social rent by 2021. So Canterbury's share might be 75, or a paltry 19 a year. But she said nothing about who will actually build them. Long gone are the days when we had an architects department so the council will rely on private developers. All the council does is to designate land on which houses might or might not be built.

Developers clamour for more land. They 'landbank' land, keeping it in reserve until they judge the market to be right for them to start building. Their job is to maximise their profits for their shareholders and to choose when it's the right time in the market cycle to start work.

More houses will not mean cheaper houses. No developer wants to build cheap houses. When was a new house cheaper than an old one? Developers will charge as much as the market will bear. No householder, and that means many of us, want house prices to fall. That could leave us with negative equity on our mortgages when mortgage costs are about to rise. Worse, it would mean that our single greatest asset, our house, would go down in value.

So house prices are essentially on a one way trip. Upwards. Don't be fooled when the council says 30% of houses will be affordable. 'Affordable' means 80% of market price. If the average price of a house in our district is £250,000 then an 'affordable' house is £200,000. How affordable is that for most first time buyers?

So two con tricks. Granting more sites for housing means they will actually get built and more houses will mean cheaper houses. We can't even choose where developers will actually build because the more sites we have, the more developers will pick the most profitable ones.

Each major site requires a developer to produce new infrastructure or community improvements. New roads, health facilities, schools, sports pitches etc. These are expensive so most of the houses get built before the community improvements. With more sites and more flexibility they can part develop a site to the point just below the threshold that triggers the improvement and then stop. So we may end up with a lot of half built housing estates with no new roads, schools or health facilities at all. If the market turns down and houses aren't selling then they will send in their accountants to prove the community facilities can't be afforded anyway and ask to be let off the hook.

So what's the solution? I have no magic wand but here are a few ideas, some of which may be too late given the constraints of our ill considered local plan.

Count students into our housing numbers. As more halls of residence are built, previously designated HMO's will come onto the market. We have recently allowed 1000 new student places to be built on Pin Hill, many of which are empty. About another 2000 or so are planned at Pin Hill, Pound Lane, Kingsmead, Military Road, New Dover Road and Parham Road. This might release 1000 HMO's for local residents. Reduce new building on greenfield sites accordingly. None of this is incorporated in the local plan which virtually denies students exist in the housing statistics.

Build a new garden city at Ebbsfleet of 40,000 houses, not the 15,000 planned, to take the pressure off Kent's towns created by London's need. Ebbsfleet has the M2/M25, a virtually unused high speed railway station and a new town corporation which will ensure the houses are built largely on brownfield land and with the right infrastructure.

Introduce a land value tax with a penalty for developers who sit on land for more than 3 years after getting planning permission and don't actually build houses.

Tax empty homes at double the rate to stop investors, often from overseas, from buying homes and then simply leaving them empty while they wait for their unoccupied asset to increase in value.

Not a complete solution but some ideas for starters.