The numbers game: Hitting housing targets

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We caught up with our CEO, Nick Hale, to get his thoughts on the housing market in line with the impending general election. Here’s what he had to say.

The housing market has played a big part in political rhetoric as campaigning for the general election ramps up.

Both main parties have indulged in that old-time election favourite, the housing numbers game. The Conservatives pledged to deliver 1.6 million new homes in their manifesto while Labour, just a few days later in theirs, promised to build one-and-a-half million homes.

But are these figures radical and, more importantly, can they be achieved? The housing numbers game is not new. In the face of a persistent housing crisis, governments, whether Labour or Conservative, have tried to outdo each other in setting ambitious housebuilding targets.

However, despite some impressive-sounding pledges in the past, targets have consistently been missed. Most recently, the government failed to meet its 300,000 new homes ambition in any year since 2019. The challenge is steep. A Centre for Cities report last year found that, compared to the average European country, Britain has a backlog of 4.3 million homes missing from the national housing market, homes that were never built.

The report revealed that filling this housing deficit would take at least half a century, even if that target to build 300,000 homes per year was reached.

The last time more than 300,000 homes were completed in a year was 1969 – nearly half of which was council housing. Thanks to the Right to Buy policy for council homes, the number of such homes has dwindled. In the past 10 years, councils have averaged building around 1,400 homes per year. The Local Government Association is calling for a change to capital receipts so that councils can keep every pound they make from selling a council house and use the money to build a new council house. 

So, what are the main parties’ solutions to the housing crisis? The Labour Party has pinned its hopes on reforming the town planning system – a political football over the past couple of decades.

Labour’s improvements to the planning system would include reinstating housing targets for local authorities’ Local Plans. However, this is not as easy as it might appear, as strict quotas for local councils have proved unpopular in the past. In the face of a rebellion from Conservative MPs in 2022, the government backed down on local targets. 

Both Labour and the Conservatives have said they will prioritise brownfield sites for development. The Conservatives have committed to fast-tracking planning for new homes on brownfield land in England’s 20 largest cities. The Conservatives have also promised more family-sized homes on inner city brownfield land in London as part of an ambition to raise “density levels of inner London to those of European cities like Paris and Barcelona” under changes to the London Plan. The Conservatives would also create locally-led urban development corporations in partnership with the private sector and institutional investors to develop brownfield regeneration sites. 

Of course, we’ve seen a focus on brownfield sites before – in the early 2000s under Tony Blair. A boost to housing numbers then was hampered because of funding constraints, planning regulations, and the complexity of large-scale development projects.

Both parties have committed to preserving the green belt. However, Labour has also pledged to create a generation of new towns, setting up a New Towns Commission within six months of coming to power. New towns are not new. Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced plans for five new “eco-towns” in 2007, but these were shelved by David Cameron’s coalition government in favour of “garden communities”. Progress has been relatively slow on new settlements since.
Labour’s other proposals include reforming compulsory purchase rules. The party would also tax foreign buyers to fund more planning officers. The Conservatives would also require councils to set aside land for smaller builders and lift developer contribution burdens, Section 106s, burdens on smaller sites.

Both parties have bold ideas for achieving their housebuilding targets. But will they be able to follow through in the face of funding constraints and local opposition

Whatever happens next, a radical overhaul is needed of the housebuilding system.