On July 7th, Boris Johnson announced his intention to step down as leader of the Conservative Party and to resign his position as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom once a new leader has been chosen. Irrespective of who is chosen to become the next leader of the Conservative Party and the United Kingdom, one of their key priorities should be to reform the nation’s housing policy.
The Problem with the UK’s Housing Market
The UK’s housing market has been crippled by poor policy-making, disjointed legislation, and vested interests, resulting in a housing market that is failing landlords, tenants, and homeowners alike. Decades of undersupply, predominantly caused by archaic and restrictive planning policy have starved the population of adequate housing, inflating house prices to unaffordable and perhaps unsustainable levels. Over and over again, the government has opted for policies that constrain supply, increase costs, and fuel further demand, rather than fix the actual shortage of properties available. Whether it is the Right To Buy Scheme, Help To Buy Scheme, 95% mortgages for first-time buyers, or the legislative nightmare that has followed the ESW1 requirements, the government has repeatedly made decisions that have exacerbated the pressures on the housing market.
Our nation needs a housing market that works for everyone. Families on the breadline deserve affordable housing, young professionals deserve convenient accommodation and aspirational families deserve the opportunity to get onto the housing ladder. However, housing policy over the past decade has been treated as a zero-sum game. Decision-making has appeared to be entirely focused on short to medium-term fixes, without consideration of the knock-on consequences they may bring about. Unfortunately, landlords and the private rental sector have weathered a disproportionate burden from these consequences.
Recent research by BVA-BDRC highlights that nearly a quarter – 23 percent – of landlords are planning to cut the number of properties that they let over the next 12 months. In comparison, only 14 percent of landlords are contemplating purchasing more properties over the next year. The Telegraph reports that the private rental sector could lose as many as 50,000 properties over the coming years as ‘the government’s war on landlords’ continues to force people out of the market. This is despite 60 percent of landlords reporting increased demand for rental housing in the second quarter of 2022 – a significant uptick on the previous year – and average rents rising 2.8 percent in the year to May.
It is herein that most highlights the disjointed nature of recent housing policy. The government has persisted with the perhaps well-intentioned aim of increasing home ownership by affording additional financial support to first-time buyers, be it through 95% mortgages or through the Help To Buy scheme. At the same time, the government has sought to restrict the private rental sector, introducing additional onerous standards and adjusting mortgage interest relief. The combined result is a situation where first-time buyers have fewer rental options and higher rents prior to buying homes that have now had their prices inflated by government-led schemes, damaging the private rental sector and making homeownership just as unattainable as before. The knock-on effects go beyond first-time buyers to other kinds of housing as well. When surveyed by the District Councils Network, 76 percent of local authorities stated that the trend of landlords leaving the private rental sector or converting their properties to short-term holiday lets had resulted in longer waiting times for council housing.
Ben Beadle, Chief Executive of the National Residential Landlords Association, said:
“The last six years prove that it was a nonsense to think that cutting the supply of rental housing when demand is so strong would make it easier for those saving for a home of their own. Driving rents up just leaves tenants with less cash to save for a deposit. We need a strong and vibrant private rental market that meets the needs of those who rely on the flexibility it provides, those who need somewhere to live before becoming homeowners and those for whom the promise of social housing tomorrow provides cold comfort today. The next administration needs to reset its plans for the sector.”
Much as we all might like, there is no magic pill or solution that will instantly solve the UK’s housing woes. However, there are a number of steps that can be taken to help the housing market to begin moving in the right direction. One of the first steps should be to introduce some consistency in the governance of housing policy itself. Come September 2022, there will have been no less than 11 housing ministers in the decade since Grant Shapps stood down, with only one lasting more than 18 months. Housing is a pivotal aspect of the UK’s economy and society. It deserves more than to be a political hot seat as ministers pursue the higher offices of power.
Much as a consistent housing minister may be a welcome sight, it is the policies that they may introduce which will have the most impact. One of the biggest challenges any minister will face will be reforming the UK’s Town and Country Planning Act, first introduced in 1948. Although amended multiple times, the UK’s planning system remains dysfunctional and out of date, be it with regard to larger infrastructure projects that drive growth and wealth, or the much-needed expansion of the UK’s housing stock. The current planning paradigm constricts more innovative smaller developers, restricting variation and innovation of new properties and concentrating the market amongst a small number of national developers. Greater freedom could allow more nimble developers to produce innovative solutions on plots that may be too small for the national house builders to consider.
Alongside new houses, there is the need to upgrade and ‘densify’ our current housing stock. One of the best proposals for this is the concept of Street Votes, which would allow individual streets to have a greater say in their own planning needs. This would allow for a more organic development of housing. Low-density streets in highly popular areas could opt-in to becoming higher-density housing, with homeowners reaping the huge financial rewards of doing so, helping to win over local support.
As well as freeing up the nation to build more homes, housing reform must also look at the way in which the private rental sector is treated. The past decade has comprised a barrage of negative legislation, constraining and penalizing landlords. There is not enough acknowledgment that the private rental sector fulfills a key economic role within our society. Students cannot purchase a home for the time that they spend at university, nor can young professionals starting a new job tie themselves to the financial commitment of a new mortgage. Whether it is new families or divorcees, teenagers moving out for the first time, or homeowners renting between homes, the UK needs a functioning private rental sector. The government should reverse the tide of legislation and focus more time and effort on catching rogue landlords than penalizing the law-abiding ones. Removing the additional stamp duty levy on second homes could support the creation of up to 900,000 more rental properties throughout the UK.
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