A couple of weeks back, The Guardian reported that “tensions are rising in Bath as influx of Londoners prices out local families”. This was a new one on me - while I’m all too familiar with the sombre housing statistics for Bath, I was surprised to learn that Londoners are to blame.
The sensationalist - almost xenophobic - headline is attention-grabbing, but this kind of narrative distracts from the real reason behind the housing crisis in our region. People from all parts of the UK and, indeed, the world, have been moving to Bath since time immemorial – it’s what makes this city such a fantastic place to live, learn and work. These ‘influx-ers’ are welcome, and bring with them diverse cultural perspectives, skills and economic benefits that add to our communities.
In my view it’s not the popularity of our cities that’s the problem, it’s the undersupply of affordable, high quality housing.
The real issue is that not enough homes are being built – pretty straightforward. But behind this simple statement there are many complex reasons.
For a start, obtaining planning permission is still a major hurdle for house-builders and even if consent is secured, addressing the local authority’s pre-commencement conditions before being able to start construction work can further delay development.
Local authorities are under pressure to reduce costs, meaning planning departments are understaffed and over-stretched. In many cases there’s simply no capacity within councils to progress planning applications.
And even if we’re able to iron out all those issues, another significant obstacle to building enough new homes is the shortage of suitable land.
One way to speed things up could be the use of targeted sections of the greenbelt, yet this is such a controversial subject that few dare to say it out loud. A dystopian vision of Britain being concreted over is not just unhelpful in terms of housing delivery, it’s also simply inaccurate. In reality, less than 6% of UK land is built on and while we absolutely have to protect our green spaces, we also ought to be more realistic about the needs of our growing population.
Increasingly, house building is slowed down or blocked by people’s attitude to development in their neighbourhood – the ‘Not-In-My-Back-Yard’ or NIMBY and the more recent ‘Build-Absolutely-Nothing-Anywhere-Near-Anything’ or BANANA trends. Although in my experience these groups don’t necessarily represent the views of the majority, they are often more motivated to mobilise than those who support growth and new housing in their area.
And of course, no debate is complete without a Brexit mention. Over the past year, market uncertainty caused by volatile Brexit negotiations has further contributed to diminished confidence in the construction sector, mainly because of concerns about availability of labour in the future.
All these factors contribute to the failure to deliver the homes we need and the consequent impact on the cost of housing - ultimately, it always comes down to supply and demand.
As a sector, we still aren’t building the amount of good quality new homes that we need, across all tenures and in the right locations – and haven’t done so for decades. Successive governments haven’t helped, through a lack of cohesive housing policy and inconsistent incentives for private developers. We’re also not doing enough to deliver large scale regeneration on estates that are in desperate need of it.
If we’re serious about sorting out the housing crisis in the UK, we need to start by owning up to and tackling these issues. To do this, we need a joint approach, with the public and the housing sector actually working together - from private developers, housing associations and local authorities, all the way through to central government and policy makers - to build the homes we need.