Housing – where should it go?

I’ve been doing some research into housing as it has become a hot topic in Oxfordshire where I am a county councillor.

Young people want to get on the property ladder but can’t, houses are just not affordable.

Keyworkers wish to take jobs but can’t afford to live locally.

Our social housing register in Oxford city has over 3000 people on it.

There is a housing crisis, but it won’t be solved by landowners building houses which can only be afforded by London commuters.

At the same time, government is pushing for growth in the south – we have a Growth Board in Oxfordshire which comprises all the district, city and county councils, and we have just signed a Growth Deal with government which commits us to building 96K homes in Oxfordshire up to 2031.

But shouldn’t we be growing our economy in the north? The country is already unbalanced, and it will become even more so if plans to build a million more houses along the proposed Oxford to Cambridge Arc proceed. The National Infrastructure Commission report on that proposal is here. On p. 28 there is a chart showing housing planned for 2016-2050: 130K extra houses for Oxfordshire as “additional development required to meet corridor-level housing need”, plus another 70K homes for Oxfordshire required “to reflect pressures from land constrained

To get my head around this topic, I’ve been looking at recent government data on where houses need to go across the country as a whole. It includes economic growth and population analysis. Evidently, we don’t need as many houses in Oxfordshire as the last Strategic Housing Market Assessment of 2014 shows. However, all local plans are using the SHMA figures, not latest government figures.

Liberal Democrat party policy in the general election read,

We want to protect the Greenbelt. There are plenty of existing communities up and down the country crying out for more housing. We want to make better use of brownfield sites, by making more public sector land available and bringing more empty homes back into use where possible. We also want to work with local communities who want to take one bold planning decision to go for growth to help them create new garden cities.

It is good policy. But it is not government policy. Following on my blog earlier today showing increasing inequality in household wealth (certainly linked to house prices and ownership), I suggest we need to up the ante in calling for more social housing, an end to Right to Buy, subsidised key worker housing, and new rules on “affordable” housing. I would make the radical suggestion that all brownfield sites in Oxford should be only used for keyworker, social, student and affordable housing. Those are where the gaps are.

There is now a requirement for local authorities to produce brownfield site registers. Having looked at Oxford’s, which includes over 100 brownfield sites, there is great potential for solving our housing crisis by developing brownfield sites.

The problem comes down to developers wanting to make money – it is cheaper to build on greenfield sites. If we take profit out of the equation, we solve the house-building crisis. We need policy which encourages social enterprise and community interest companies, as well as local authorities, to solve local housing needs.



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  • Matt Severn 6th Apr '18 - 5:46pm

    But people on lower incomes also want to live in greenfield sites. If you need to house 3000 people crack on and build some houses. Don’t make excuses as to why they can’t be built near other people whose houses were also built on greenfield

  • Kirsten,

    In all the coverage of the “Housing Crisis”, hardly anything is said about how our existing housing stock is being used.
    The crisis is not so much about Britain having enough housing., but more one of allocation between older and younger generations, and between the rich and the poor. Under-occupation of houses is encouraged by the tax system, resulting in 25 million surplus bedrooms. The housing crisis is in fact a symptom of a much wider social malaise: growing wealth inequality, and the growing inter-generational divide in which “the money borrowed by young families” to enable them to buy the smallest new homes in Europe ends up “in the bank accounts of older households” .

    More than a third of total English housing stock is under-occupied, i.e. there is more than one spare bedroom. Owner-occupiers – including 80%+ of over-55s but well under half those families with dependent children – have no incentive whatsoever to down-size. Probably 90% of spare bedrooms are in pensioners’ owner-occupied properties. Only in the over-65 age-group has owner-occupation increased since 1991. Meanwhile households living in the private rented sector are set to double between 2007 and 2020.

    Since 1980 (when it roughly equalled GDP), total home-owner household equity has almost doubled in real terms. In 2007, it had reached 185% of GDP. As a proportion of net personal wealth, dwellings have increased from 18% in 1960 to about 60%.
    While housing wealth grew in the past 20 years, it was exceeded by the household debt accumulated over the same period – mostly secured against owner-occupied homes and fuelling house price rises. More than ¾ of household debt in 2009 was secured on dwellings. Average household debt – and the proportion secured on dwellings – is far higher in Britain than any other major economy. Almost all the increase since 2002 has been mortgage related.

    LVT gives a strong financial incentive for all households to minimise under-occupation and cease to treat their home as a principal store of wealth.
    Young people still overwhelmingly aspire to own their own homes. Yet it is estimated that on current trends barely a half of those aged 20 now will ever buy one. Inter-generational unfairness in this market is systemic and combines with wealth inequality to create disillusion among young people. Until it is corrected,it is like a time-bomb ticking in our society.

  • Great place Oxford. I was up there in Headington on Thursday.

  • Another “yes isnt the housing crisis terrible but oh dear I can’t be seen to support greenfield housing” Lib Dem. If you are supporting the Nimbys in Oxfordshire or elsewhere you are on the side of the comfortable “haves” and against the young and the poor. Your choice, but don’t try to pretend that “we can do it all on brownfield land” or “we can build all the houses in the north” or “we just need more council housing” or whatever other excuse you can find. Just accept that you care more about the homeowners than the home-needers.

  • Kirsten Johnson 7th Apr '18 - 8:06am

    Thanks for reading. I’m definitely for LVT. I am also for social housing, truly affordable housing (perhaps using mixed ownership models), releasing land for self-build. Greenfield is different than Green Belt.

    Our policy briefing from the last election reads: “We want to protect the Greenbelt. There are plenty of existing communities up and down the country crying out for more housing. We want to make better use of brownfield sites, by making more public sector land available and bringing more empty homes back into use where possible. We also want to work with local communities who want to take one bold planning decision to go for growth to help them create new garden cities.”

    It is getting the right housing, in the right places, and preventing urban sprawl. Good transport links (in my area that means rural buses) allow people to easily commute from villages for jobs, etc. Lack of investment in buses and improving rail is not connecting communities.

  • Carole Mulroney 7th Apr '18 - 9:06am

    I am a coincillor in a seaside borough. We are constrained by the sea and green belt . Our particular town is very popular for developers because prices are high. We can’t build out so they build up. Flats are swamping our infrastructure with no relief in site. The planning rules and especially the viability wriggle out work in favour of developers and against provision of affordable housing. I have put down motions to our Tory administration to lobby government to remove the viability get out and recognise that some towns cannot take any more and their infrastructure is creaking and communities are fragmenting. You can guess the response. Until givernment and planning recognise these issues and addresses them it will just continue. We need affordable housing of good quality not luxury flats to enable those that can afford them a weekend sea view.

  • Peter Martin 7th Apr '18 - 9:36am

    Young people want to get on the property ladder but can’t, houses are just not affordable.

    But why? Yes immigration into Oxford , including immigration, from other parts of the UK too, is a factor in creating extra demand. But if the process of the ‘free market’ was working then extra demand would create extra supply, and so to reduce prices, and that obviously isn’t happening.

    But why not? The answer is that the government relies on a policy of having expensive housing. Or, to be more precise, there needs to be a general perception, in the community, that house prices are always going to rise – so that you and I will borrow and create the extra spending power needed to keep the economy moving. And that perception certainly exists. So we may think a house is overpriced at £500k or whatever but if it is going to be £520k in a year’s time so what? Let’s get that loan application off to the bank or building society before it goes up even higher!

    Total borrowing in the UK is necessary to fund our current account deficit. If the UK as a whole is buying more from abroad than we sell abroad then someone, Government or you and I, has to do the net borrowing. Government policy, over the past two or three decades has been to borrow less itself, but encourage everyone else to borrow more.

    So that’s why we are where we are. It’s no mystery. There is a bubble in the housing market and it has to deflate at some point which much associated financial pain.

  • Neil Sandison 7th Apr '18 - 11:25am

    Kirsten Johnson .As a planning Councillor i know treating the greenbelt as sacrosanct is unrealistic indeed all the greenbelt is not green and can contain substantive former brownfield sites that have become derelict or not used for decades .Most of the current local plans are being driven by our major cities not being able to contain their growing populations going forward into the 2030s .The victims have been as Carole Mulroney points the market towns nearby who have seen their green fields or open countryside abutting their urban edges disappearing at a significant rate creating urban sprawl and the “conurbanisation” of some villages .The problem then becomes one of viable infrastructure to support that housing growth that requires investment from both central government and private developers i would encourage you all to make a big fuss about your local transport plans before those green fields disappear under housing ,the congestion becomes a reality and your emissions from poor air quality start to impact on your residents.2040 is still a long way off for those electric cars.
    Support affordable housing where ever it can be delivered but we should not forget to regenerate our old housing estates and tower blocks particularly after Grenfell where i suspect we will find a great many more buildings in urgent need of replacement.

  • Phil Beesley 7th Apr '18 - 1:47pm

    As Kirsten Johnson observed about Liberal Democrat party policy: “We want to protect the Greenbelt. There are plenty of existing communities up and down the country crying out for more housing. We want to make better use of brownfield sites…”

    The “brownfield site” definition was a popular perception when the policy was made. The brownfields in my area look like urban deserts where wild life evolves in spite of the world around the space; I have seen escaped, but surviving, deer on land two miles from a city centre; I have seen children playing on the same space.

    But it is brownfield land, and a “brownfield site”, on which new developments are intended to be made. Nobody considers how a brownfield becomes a greenfield.

  • Martin Walker 7th Apr '18 - 3:10pm

    I strongly agree with the thrust of this article and the lack of any effective regional policy by any Government in decades is a key reason why we have a broken housing market in the first place, with unviable sites in the north of England and too little affordable housing in the south.

    There are two things that we need to face up to, though, which are referenced in the article:

    First, it isn’t sustainable in my view to pretend that the housing crisis can be solved without incursions into the Green Belt, this is proving the case even in northern Cities and Districts working through the Local Plan process.

    Secondly, although mechanisms such as local authority development and community interest companies can and should play a role, this will only bring into play those sites which are viable without the developers’ profit margin. Without significant investment / subsidy, there are still plenty of sites that are unviable even at 0% profit. Of course, an effective regional growth policy which you mention is the best way of tackling this point.

  • Peter Martin 8th Apr '18 - 9:48am

    “Brownfield” sites are often more ecologically diverse than ‘greenfields’. So its not a simple matter of protecting the greenbelt to protect nature. Bownfield sites can also be useful recreational areas for urban residents. It would make sense, in many cases, to recognise this and convert them into parkland after making the necessary scientific consultations to protect the local ecology.


    From an simple economic POV housing needs to go near where the jobs are. That means where the economy is at its most buoyant and housing is currently the most expensive. In other words – London and the SE of England. If we had a slightly more sophisticated economic POV we’d say that there should be more fiscal equalisation to balance things up in the regions.

    That means having a strong central government to raise the taxes in the wealthy areas and spend the proceeds in the poorer ones. This, though, obviously isn’t in line with current Lib Dem thinking.

  • Richard Underhill 9th Apr '18 - 6:59pm

    Technology moves on.
    What are called ‘printers’ can work with concrete and produce pre-designed houses in hours instead of days or weeks.

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