Why land holds the key to England’s housing crisis

Josh Pritchard

September 25, 2019 | @jb_pritchard

More than 320,000 British people are currently homeless and over a million more young adults are living with their parents in their 20s and 30s than in 2000.

Government believes that building more homes is the answer and yet the target of an extra 300,000 homes per year is not working, with that figure having been missed every year since the policy was first introduced. In addition, the quality and types of homes being built – equally as important as the quantity – are equally neglected. Social and private housing are both required to alleviate the issue of housing shortages and yet the amount of social housing being built lags far behind even the small targets set by government.

Whilst the solution of building more homes is certainly part of the answer, land, not construction or even funding, is the biggest barrier. As Shelter, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the National Landlords Association, the New Economics Foundation, and Onward, put it in a 2018 open letter to James Brokenshire MP, then Housing Secretary:

 “The root of England’s housing crisis lies in how we buy and sell land. Think of a problem with the way we build homes – or don’t build homes – and in the end it comes back to our broken land market.”

Land presents the single biggest bottleneck to new home construction in the UK, with both acquisition and planning permission causing insurmountable delays. It is difficult to separate the issues of land and housing, and yet the latter garners most of the attention.

The statistics around land in the UK help explain why land reform is so important to solving the housing crisis. The Office for National Statistics states that land accounted for 50 per cent of the UK’s net worth in 2018, and yet one per cent of the UK population owns over half of the land in England. Available land for house building is therefore scarce, expensive, and difficult to acquire. Many councils and urban boroughs face significant challenges in expanding their land holdings to maintain a continuous pipeline of new homes, particularly when faced with the expensive prices offered for land on the open market.

Land is a significant element of the UK housing crisis precisely because the laws, taxes, and policies regarding land have remained largely unchanged for decades. Various solutions have been proposed to this issue, with differing levels of success.

As part of the Government’s housing strategies, Cabinet Office, for instance, has undertaken a large-scale Land Disposal strategy aimed at both releasing government owned land for home construction and raising capital for central government. Government owns land and property worth £179 billion, around 43 per cent of the total public sector estate. This represents a significant asset for central government. The release of surplus land and property to the value of £5 billion by 2020 is intended to raise funds whilst simultaneously freeing up land for the construction of new homes under the MHCLG Public Land for Housing Programme.

However, as the NAO has revealed, whilst the fund raising programme is on-track to hit the £5 billion, the amount of land released for home building and the number of homes built sits at 41% of the target, with fewer than half of the 160,000 homes predicted having actually been released to the market.

Lessons on how to tackle these challenges could potentially be learnt from elsewhere and Scotland may provide one case study given its long history of land reform and largescale community-based approaches to land ownership and usage. The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 both provided a broad set of policies aimed at widening land ownership and ensuring that land was being used effectively and efficiently by local communities. By making it easier for community bodies to acquire land (whether in urban or rural areas), and focusing on sustainable development, the combination of laws has seen some 560,000 acres taken into community ownership.

Thinking outside of the box may provide a solution to England’s land crisis and the bottleneck generated by land policies that are unsuited to the current needs of the English population.

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