Building new homes remains a priority – even in unprecedented times

Anya Martin, Senior Researcher, National Housing Federation, 04 May 2020

For the second edition of Thinkhouse’s blog for the NHF, we look at recent research on housing supply.

When I first started thinking about this blog post, the cranes down the road from my house in Wembley had ground to a halt. According to Savills, the shutdown instantly stopped work on 220,000 homes. Housebuilders initially said that they didn’t expect to start work again for several months, missing the crucial period of good summer weather.

However, by the time I started writing, several major contractors were looking at re-opening sites imminently. Indeed, sites will be permitted to extend their operating hours to allow them to catch up on missed work. It shows just how much of a priority housing supply remains for government, even in such unprecedented times.

A recently published report from Founders Pledge called Housing Affordability in England highlights why this might be the case. It comes from a slightly different perspective than the usual. Founders Pledge is a charity that seeks to direct philanthropists towards the most effective and evidence-led ways to deliver positive social change, part of the effective altruism movement.

Normally, these goals lead to projects in lower-income countries. But, after getting member interest in donation opportunities in higher-income countries, Founders Pledge investigated and came to a shocking conclusion: that low housing supply is one of England’s most significant socioeconomic problems, and that land-use reform is likely to be one of the most impactful causes out there. For a paper containing some pretty meaty analysis, it’s very easy to read and a great summary of the basics of housing affordability and its wider economic impacts. Well worth a read.

A related must-read is the House of Commons Library’s briefing paper on tackling the under-supply of housing in England. As a researcher I really look up to its authors, Wendy Wilson and Cassie Barton, as they consistently produce some of the most insightful papers in the sector. It looks at housing need and some of the key barriers to meeting this, including (but not limited to) how to boost the contribution of housing associations, bring land forward quickly and at reasonable prices, and reform the planning system, including through the use of better incentives.

These may seem abstract and distant from the current crisis, but they have very real implications for our ability to cope with what is likely to be a seriously difficult economic crisis. Living in an affordable home provides a buffer against income shocks for individual households, and developing them provides a strong counter-cyclical boost to the economy. Nice!

Another paper that really caught my eye was Lichfields’ Start to Finish, investigating what factors affect build-out rates. This enormous project looked at dozens of large sites across England and Wales to identify why things take so long. It comes out with some really practical findings about where the choke points are in the planning and development process, and where there is the most room for improvement.

It complements the findings of the seminal Letwin Review, in particular with regard to the importance of diversity of tenure and type on sites. The message is clear that affordable housing, far from being a hindrance to overall supply, is an essential trigger for it.

I’ve selected a few reports that piqued my interest, but there are loads more on every housing topic on the new and improved Thinkhouse website. If you’re looking for bedtime reading, that’s where to start.