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Rooms for improvement


How to solve Britain’s housing crisis


The outrageous cost of housing constrains the economy and poisons politics


Aug 3rd 2017   2017年8月3日文章


ON EVERY side, Britain’s politicians are grappling with problems of immense scale and nightmarish complexity. How to manage the departure from the European Union? How to help a crumbling health service cope with an ageing, weakening population? How to deal with persistent regional deprivation? Yet one national scourge that holds back the economy and poisons politics is readily solvable—politicians just need to be brave enough to act. That scourge is the cost of housing.


Through the roof
The ratio of median house prices to earnings in England hit 7.7 in 2016, its highest recorded level. In the past four decades house prices have grown by more in Britain than in any other G7 country. Home ownership has been falling for more than a decade, after rising for most of the past century. In London housing is outlandishly dear: before the Brexit vote sent the pound tumbling, it was the priciest city in the world for renters.


The cost of housing has knock-on effects across the economy. As people are forced out to the suburbs, cities become less dynamic. Workers waste time on marathon, energy-sapping commutes. People from the regions cannot afford to move to cities where they might find work. Businesses cannot clear land to build. It is perhaps no coincidence that Britain’s growing housing mess has coincided with stagnant productivity.


All this has fostered a growing sense of inequity. Britons over the age of 65, a fifth of the population, own over 40% of the housing wealth held by owner-occupiers. Youngsters with rich parents can buy their first house thanks to the “Bank of Mum and Dad”. Everyone else must resign themselves to renting small properties for life, or to continuing to pay off their mortgage long after retirement. At the election in June half of all private renters voted for Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, up from a third who supported the party in 2010. As home-ownership declines, the Conservatives, in particular, are beginning to worry (see article)—as indeed they should.


What makes Britain’s housing squeeze maddening is that, unlike many other problems, something can easily be done about it. Britain needs to get building. The consensus is that, to keep prices in check, it must put up 300,000 houses a year, double what it erected in 2015-16. Mr Corbyn says the answer is a huge expansion of public housing, like the one in the Wilson and Callaghan governments in the 1970s. This would be expensive, especially if such housing was let at below-market rates. And few Britons aspire to rent from the council for life.


Better would be to unleash the market. A change to regulations on green-belt land, which surrounds cities and which is designed to block construction, is long overdue. Far from being a bucolic retreat, much of the green belt is intensively farmed. By one estimate, more of Surrey is devoted to golf courses than houses. Within Greater London enough green-belt land languishes to build 1.6m houses at average densities.



The government should also cut stamp duty, a land tax levied on property transactions. Over the long term the burden has risen, which is one reason why the rate of transactions has slumped. Abolishing or replacing stamp duty would help more young families live in decent homes. Oldies could downsize at less cost, freeing up more of Britain’s 25m or so empty bedrooms.



And Westminster needs to do away with the perverse incentives arising from local-government taxation, in particular the out-of-date system of council tax, which is levied on housing. Councils miss out on much of the extra local tax revenue from new houses, because it is hoovered up and redistributed by central government. But they are lumbered with the cost of providing local services for newcomers. That should change. Councils should be allowed to charge taxes that reflect the true values of properties—and keep the proceeds.


Economically straightforward is not the same as politically easy. Even so, Theresa May, the prime minister, has so far failed to show any mettle over housing. Her government has proposed nothing more than tweaks to a broken system. This lack of leadership feeds a crisis that is entirely unnecessary.