Addressing the housing crisis goes beyond planning

The recent Labour Party Conference delivered a clear message that housing will be a significant battleground in the next general election.

Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, made an ambitious pledge to construct one and a half million new homes within five years under a new Labour Government, envisioning “shovels in the ground and cranes in the sky”.

He outlined plans to utilise green belt land, including disused car parks and neglected wastelands, which he aptly dubs “grey land”.

We also heard him embrace the label of a “Yimby,” declaring, “Yes In My Backyard.”

Housing has undeniably become a pressing political issue, which is no surprise. A recent survey conducted by the Home Builders’ Federation (HBF) found more than 40% of respondents agree with the statement, ‘Housing will be an important factor in determining who I vote for in the next General Election.’

A significant 72% of those surveyed pointed the finger of blame squarely at the Government for the housing crisis, with local councils following behind at 16%. Yet, only 55% of respondents believed solving the housing crisis was a true priority for politicians.

Starmer’s promise to boost affordable housing is very much welcome, and it would indeed be great to see it come to fruition. However, while planning can go some way towards solving the problem, it cannot be solved by planning reform alone. We are also facing a shortage of builders and materials, and coordinated action is needed.

Years of sluggish housing development and a lack of job opportunities within the sector have driven some builders to seek alternative work. This means there may not even be enough labourers to build Starmer’s one and a half million homes, and that is before we factor in the materials shortage which we have had since coming out of the pandemic.

As well as embarking on building new stock, there is also an argument to be had for tackling the issue of empty homes. It is estimated there are currently around 676,000 empty homes in England alone. Among these, 248,633 homes are classified as long-term empty properties, having remained vacant for over six months.

Scotland and Wales have introduced initiatives to revive such vacant properties, recognising the importance of putting existing buildings to use rather than solely focusing on new constructions and there are increasing calls to reinstate the 2012 Empty Homes Programme for England.

Given the extent of vacant properties in England and the need to retrofit the UK’s housing stock, it would also seem logical to formulate a plan to incorporate energy efficiency into upgrading empty homes.

From both the retrofit and renovation angles, the community often serves as the driving force in such schemes. Even on the retrofit side, we are seeing an increase in community-led projects, where, for example, one heat pump can serve an entire street.

Perhaps we need a return of the Channel 4 program The £1 Houses, which some might remember from a few years ago. In the programme, we watched as locals in Liverpool were given the chance to buy a derelict terraced property for just £1 in return for making it habitable.

While the renovations were carried out with varying degrees of success, the program did demonstrate the community that was built alongside it and how a dilapidated property can be brought back to life.

Finding such initiatives, however, is likely to come from local authorities, many of which are already financially strained.

Noting Rishi Sunak’s hinted reluctance for a General Election, we may well see it postponed well into 2024, potentially to January 2025, providing the Conservatives with ample time to outdo Labour’s pledges on housing.

Whether Starmer’s recent promises materialise or not, the focus on housing in the upcoming election can only be beneficial for the market and the country.

Simon Jackson is managing director of SDL Surveying

First published by Financial Reporter

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