A million new homes in England over the course of this Parliament.
That is the ambition set out by Housing Minister Brandon Lewis today, in an attempt to tackle a “decades-old deficit”.
In the years since the financial crisis, the number of homes built every year has hovered around the 110,000 to 120,000 mark, well below the roughly 250,000 homes a year England needs. Even before the crisis, the number of homes were failing to keep up with demand.
A million will not be enough to deal with the backlog of unfilled demand. However, if it is truly possible to build this many homes by 2020, that would at least start to come close to meeting the additional homes needed over the next 4-5 years.
Setting out an ambition is a good start. But it is far from clear how Government is to get there. As we show in The Politics of Housing, the last time the number of homes built in England were consistently over 200,000 a year was the 1970s, when social housing accounted for similar levels of new homes built as private developers. With the finances of housing associations – the main provider of social housing – under pressure, it seems unlikely that an explosion in home building will come from this source. And Government’s fiscal targets dampen down the likelihood of councils filling the gap.
That leaves the private sector. The last time the private sector consistently built over 200,000 homes a year it was the 1930s. Interest rates were low, as they are now. But unlike today, the planning system as we know it now had not yet come into being.
So can we expect some big changes to the planning system to allow the million homes target to be hit? Government has already started watering the system down at the very edges. Brownfield sites are to carry automatic planning permission to build under a new zonal system. Removing the need for permission for additional stories up to the level of adjoining buildings may start to encourage higher density in towns and cities.
But it is unlikely that these measures will be enough on their own. Building on brownfield will help, but on its own will not be enough. Some brownfield will simply not be in the right locations. To meet the target, the Government will need to start inching its way into more contentious territory. Extending the zonal idea to small greenfield areas near cities that have little environmental value would be an obvious next step. Urban areas in England still only take up less than 11% of its landmass. We will also need to rehabilitate the idea of high density in towns and cities, after the design flaws and mistakes that were made in building high rises in the mid twentieth century.
Making further inroads into the planning system will be politically challenging. But with a developing political consensus across the main parties on the need for more housing, now is a good opportunity to make those reforms. The Government will need to press on quickly if it is to get to a million by 2020.