Why we need housing targets for local authorities

Complex systems tend towards inertia. We struggle to see things in terms of counter-factuals. When presented with cause-and-effect, we don’t compare negative effects against negative effects of inaction or of alternative action, we compare negative effects with what existed prior.

The ULEZ charge illustrates this. Paying £12.50 every day to drive your old car through London may be better than living in a polluted city, but it is still worse in an immediate and personal way than not having to pay that £12.50 at all. Sadiq Khan pressed ahead with this regardless, surely in no small part to him being relatively confident he will win re-election anyway in 2024. Do we think Nik Johnson and Dan Norris are looking at the ULEZ backlash in London and thinking it’d be a sensible roll of the dice for them, electorally?

Complex systems tend towards inertia. It is the job of campaigners, activists, and politicians to overcome this inertia. In aspect of British politics is there so much inertia, to the detriment of so many people, than in our chronic failure to build houses.

Building sites are loud and ugly. Housing estates produce congestion and traffic. A wheat field is in many ways a much more preferable neighbour than a new-build estate. And so there are inevitable, unavoidable objections, not just to any housing development in particular, but to every housing development in particular. It does reveal an ugly side of us that when we hear of housing developments, we think of traffic, congestion, pollution, and noise, and do not think in terms of new neighbours, new friends, and new members of our community.

So we don’t build. Or we do build, but after lengthy, legal processes which increase the cost to build and incentivise housebuilders only to build the most profitable housing, i.e. “executive homes”. Or slap on onerous targets like a development having at least 30% affordable housing, leading to developers pulling out entirely and sites remaining barren with zero affordable homes at all.

Housebuilding is not the responsibility of local authorities, but political control of it is devolved to them. Councils are not obliged to construct or maintain housing, but their permission is required for any new housing to be built. Simply put, any new development must be approved by a planning committee made up of elected councillors. So when we talk about mandating councils in the form of housing targets, we’re not actually talking about making councils do anything, we’re talking about preventing them from stopping building from taking place.

Councillors are beholden to their residents, who in most cases disapprove of nearby development and so the political incentives are weighted against housebuilding. Our localist system of government rightly devolves power to local communities and a consequence of this is that actually-existing local residents’ concerns are given much greater weight than the interests of people who may or may not move into houses which have not yet been built. This is a fantastic system if you’re a settled homeowner, terrible if you’re looking to get on to the housing ladder or looking to move into another area. In the absence of firm housing targets, this is how planning committees operate and will continue to operate.

As has been said earlier on this website, ‘crisis’ does not cut it in terms of housebuilding. The UK’s housing shortage means the poorest people in this country live in century-old houses without double glazing, which cannot be properly insulated, and which would not be approved for construction nowadays. The lack of social housing in this country means that being poor means a lifetime of insecurity and being beholden to the benevolence of your landlord. It means the government spending more than £15bn annually on housing benefit, a direct wealth transfer from taxpayers to rent-seeking asset-holders.

Our planning system has delivered an undersupply of homes for decades, the effects of which mean millions of young people are unable to get on to the property ladder due to paying in excess a third of their incomes on rent. The only solution to this is to build more houses across the country and to free developers to build homes where people actually want to live. If we are serious about tackling the housing crisis, we need to support housing targets and penalties for authorities who breach them. It is not localist or communitarian to deny homes to young people, it is conservatism dressed up as progress.

* Ciaran Morrissey is a councillor in Sunderland and the prospective parliamentary candidate for Washington and Sunderland West.

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10 Comments

  • Complex systems tend towards inertia. It is the job of campaigners, activists, and politicians to overcome this inertia.” That is deep and insightful and so true. Well worth remembering – not just for housing, but in general.

    It does reveal an ugly side of us that when we hear of housing developments, we think of traffic, congestion, pollution, and noise, and do not think in terms of new neighbours, new friends, and new members of our community.” – again, very insightful and a very thought-provoking way of looking at our usual response to housing.

    A great article. It’s not often I see something that really illuminates new ways of thinking about a political problem, but this one certainly does that.

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Sep '23 - 4:27pm

    Housing targets without regard for necessary services needed by new – or existing -residents? Without regard for environmental impacts?

  • Does Councillor Ciaran Morrissey have a view on what should be done given that Rightmove reports the average sold house price in Sunderland was £ 168,000 last year, whereas in St Albans it was £ 651,000 ?

  • Sandy Smith 12th Sep '23 - 4:54pm

    Perhaps the solution is to require Councils to build council housing when they have long waiting lists of people looking for a council house?

  • ‘we hear of housing developments, we think of traffic, congestion, pollution, and noise..’
    …on already congested, polluted roads that barely cope with existing traffic volumes.
    ‘We’ also think how hard it is to get a GP appointment or see a dentist with existing population numbers, of the local hospital being insufficient for the existing demand…
    I don’t think it’s fair or helpful to call opposition to new developments ‘ugly’. It’s certainly not a phrase that win the hearts and minds of voters.

  • Martin Gray 12th Sep '23 - 5:53pm

    Those century old houses in my experience are better built , significantly larger , and visually more attractive than so many new builds – that’s why people pay a premium for them …. Maintenance costs are obviously higher etc ….But give me an Edwardian or Victorian house anyday, over a lot of new builds of dubious quality ..The biggest challenge is social housing or lack of that’s what we should be concentrating on …

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 12th Sep '23 - 9:49pm

    The answer to Cassie’s point is not to not build houses. That simply leaves people with stretched GP services, busy roads AND living in overcrowded or unsuitable accommodation.

    Build houses and build the infrastructure their residents need. See new developments as opportunities to invest in an area and make it better for existing and new residents

  • Helen Dudden 14th Sep '23 - 3:22pm

    Nothing about the severe need for accessible homes. Often not built as the excuse of cost is used.
    I don’t believe turning our country into one huge housing estate is the answer.
    The reasoning on how services can hold up is a good one.

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