New house building starts – what price the Green Belt?

Despite Government efforts to free up the planning system, new housing starts are falling lamentably behind.  Whilst there is consensus that many more new houses are needed, debate rages as to how numbers can be improved without threatening the Green Belt or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The significance of this lack of new housing starts was brought into stark clarity when we came across statistics for the early years of the last War.  Between 1st October 1937 and 31st March 1940 (when the UK population stood at roughly 48 million) 352,000 new houses were built – an average of 136,258 a year.

Yet by 2006 (with prosperity booming and a UK population having risen to ca 60 million), new housing starts had only risen to183,000.  Even more worrying, by 2012 (with roughly the same population) new housing starts had fallen back to only 98,280 – said to represent under 40% of those needed to meet demand.

Who is to blame? Continual tinkering with the planning system by successive governments?  The disincentive of Local Authorities requiring social housing to be incorporated into every new development? Lack of bank lending?  ‘Land banking’ by developers, as they wait for ‘better times’?  No-one can be sure – probably any or all of these – but, to quote the politician’s syllogism ‘something must be done’.

The planning system is beginning to deliver a clear policy for the number of new housing starts and where they can be located (through SHLAA’s and Neighbourhood Plans) and, in particular, where social housing needs to be located and with a levy on every new consent to pay for it.  However, catching up with a decade of building lag means taking radical decisions – new towns, or building in the historic Green Belt or an AONB (if a site is of little aesthetic significance or represents the only logical way of expanding a community).

Once planning consent has been granted, should land owners be fined for delaying implementation by, say, more than 12 months, without good cause?  Unless the country grasps the severity of the problem, a growing lack of supply relative to demand (as affordability improves, coming out of recession) can only lead to house prices rising to unsustainable levels.