How many homes have actually been built on public land?

Margaret Thatcher’s favourite think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, has brought out a new discussion document, presumably to pre-empt the much-awaited Housing White Paper (now, apparently scheduled for Tuesday).  Entitled “Housing: Now is the time to seize the opportunity” it summarises many of the arguments the authors also made in their previous report, the intriguingly-named Pink Planning (think watered-down red tape, rather than anything else!).

What jumped out at me from the report, however, was the somehow tangential claim that, as of January 2016, “only 200” new homes had actually been completed on public sector land released for housing development.

It turns out that this is a slight simplification, but even so the truth isn’t much better.

By way of background, the Coalition Government promised, in 2011, to release land on which 100,000 new homes could be built by 2015.  In 2016, the Government replaced the programme, promising land for 160,000 new homes by 2020.  It seems reasonable to expect that, for each programme, the Government would have monitored how many homes were actually built, but apparently not.

So, in January 2016, at the behest of the Public Accounts Committee, CLG undertook some sampling of the 942 sites released.  It looked at 100 sites, on which 200 homes had been produced.  So, assuming the sampling was fair, one could assume that perhaps some 2,000 or so homes had been delivered by that point.  (See here for the transcript).

The CLG officials were at pains to point out that there were a further 28 sites on which work had started which had the potential to provide another 2,100 or so.

Nevertheless, it is telling that at the end of the programme, the limited data available would suggest that only 2-3% of the 100,000 new homes referred to by Government at the start were actually ready for people to move into.

At the end of the programme, only 2-3% of the 100,000 new homes referred to at the start were actually ready for people to move into.

Fast-forward to November 2016 (remember – we are now trying to release land for 160,000 new homes) at the PAC was at it again, concerned that the slow start of the new programme would mean that ground would have to be made up.  It has now managed to elicit a promise from CLG for regular reporting on the programme – including data on houses actually built, which Ministers appeared reluctant to give in January last year – but as of February 2017 there does not seem to be any actual reporting.

Releasing public land for housing development is – rightly – flagged as a key plank for addressing the housing crisis, particularly in London.  But the sparse data and poor track record of actually converting land release into new homes is sobering.

Boris Johnson’s London Land Commission found “40,000 sites” with “capacity for 130,000 new homes.”  By my rough calculation, that equates to about 30% of London’s housing target to 2025.  So if those sites only yield at, say 10% (well ahead of the CLG 2015 data) that is going to leave quite a gap.

Apologies if this is old news but the extent to which land release has failed to lead to new homes being delivered came as something of a shock to me, given its importance in London housing policy.

Other by-the-way thoughts on the CPS document:

  • Interestingly it seems to share many of the conclusions of some of the Wolfson Prize winning/shortlisted entries which are that new forms of delivery mechanisms seem to be needed, combining plan-making, development control and, crucially, site-assembly powers to gain local support for development and then ensuring its delivery.  The CPS calls them Special Purpose Vehicles and suggests that they could include a range of interests including local landowners.
  • A charge of 20% on final sales values is suggested, to replace CIL.
  • Affordable housing is not specifically mentioned and seems the elephant in the room.  I suspect the authors feel, probably fairly, that if the housing market was working effectively the need for affordable housing would be significantly reduced.  However, in the short term, the report does not address how expectations for affordable housing would be managed, nor explain whether this would supported by the final sales charge.

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