Another government, another housing strategy: local leaders must do more

Rupert Callingham
Policy Assistant
9th February 2017

We all know that we need to build more homes in this country. Increasingly unaffordable house prices and rents are pricing more and more people out of the market and placing a growing strain on budgets. Yet while plans to tackle the housing crisis have become a staple of successive governments, house building levels have remained stubbornly low for decades.

The government's White Paper – ‘fixing our broken housing market’ – acknowledges the scale of the problem and sets out proposals to speed up the rate of development. Many across our region will be hoping this translates into meaningful action on the ground – not only those currently struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder, but those with an interest in the success of this area’s businesses and economy.

A lack of a sufficient supply of well-located and affordable homes has major repercussions for business. If housing costs are too high in an area, firms will find it more difficult to attract and retain the talent they need. If the problem becomes acute, it can place a drag on economic growth, with prospective employees and employers alike opting for competing areas better able to accommodate an expanding workforce.

This is a major challenge for the West of England, where housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable, particularly when measured against local wages. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence out there of local companies which have struggled to recruit and hold on to staff because of high housing costs. Whether for highly-skilled engineers in Filton, tech whizz’s in Bristol’s Temple Quarter or the thousands of service workers who keep Bath’s visitor economy ticking over, we need housing located in the right areas that’s more affordable both to buy and to rent.

The measures within the government’s new housing strategy may go some way to speeding up the planning system and helping the housing market work more effectively, though few are calling it radical. With no consideration of the way different markets work across the country or specific obligations for areas experiencing particularly high pressures, ultimately the government has left it up to our leaders locally to plan ambitiously for the level of housing we need. Unfortunately, in our region, this has not been happening.

The West of England is in the midst of developing a Joint Spatial Plan to guide where and how many homes are to be built in the region over the next 20 years. It’s a big piece of work which will have major implications for housing affordability in the future, but the current proposed numbers simply aren’t as ambitious as they could be. Work which Business West has commissioned by the respected housing market economist Professor Glen Bramley spells out some stark warnings over the likely consequences of the authorities’ current approach.

Bramley’s model shows that if the authorities stick to their current plan, house prices will continue to rise relative to incomes and the affordability of both home ownership and renting will deteriorate. Alarmingly, Bramley shows that little more than a quarter of under-40s will be able to afford to buy a home in the local area by 2031, dropping from nearly 70% in 2002. Surely this is a sign that our authorities must do more.

A Brownfield-first approach to housing development is essential and welcome, and it’s right that the Green Belt should be preserved as far as possible. Given the pressures we are under, however, there’s a strong case for revisiting the Green Belt in certain locations close to transport infrastructure and jobs, and where land is of low quality. This is actually far more sustainable than landing major developments miles away from the main urban centres, and needs to be looked at seriously. We must also make sure that a balance is struck in our urban areas between developing Brownfield sites for housing while leaving enough room for the offices, depots and factories needed by business.

However the picture changes nationally, it’s clear that local leaders must take responsibility for meeting the housing challenge. Failure to do so will come at a huge price for our residents, businesses and the regional economy.

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