1. You may have noticed that everyone is talking about house prices, all of the time.
This is every dinner party you ever go to.
2. Yet for all of this property madness, home ownership is now at the lowest level since the 1980s.
For the first time pretty much in recorded history, home ownership is falling. The private rented sector meanwhile - yeah, that’s just getting bigger and bigger.
3. And it’s the young who are losing out most.
This chart actually hides how bad it is. Lots of those lucky 25- to 34-year-olds who do own borrowed the money from their parents.
4. The problem is that the price is just too damned high.
There are bumps - usually when there is a massive recession. But the long run trend is up and up and up until you’re dizzy.
5. If everything else you bought had increased in price at the same rate as housing since the 1970s…
6. So what drives up the price? Well, first: we’re not building enough new houses.
Construction started on just 107,000 new homes in England last year. Excluding World War II, that’s the lowest figure since the 1920s.
7. And second, the population is growing faster than at any time since the 1960s.
All of which means that there’s lots of demand for new houses, and not very many new houses.
8. Why not build more? Well first, blame these guys.
That’s Clement Attlee’s cabinet. In 1947, the Attlee government introduced the Town and Country Planning Act, which made it illegal to build anything without planning permission. Their plan - masterminded by Aneurin Bevan - was that the government would provide most new housing, and new private homes would be very strongly restricted. Meanwhile, big, successful cities such as London, Oxford and Birmingham would be surrounded by green belts, in which it is almost impossible to build anything. They really hated urban sprawl.
9. But this woman should get some of the blame too.
Margaret Thatcher’s government stopped councils from building new houses themselves and she made it easier for people to get mortgages. But she didn’t make it much easier for private developers to build new houses on green fields. So all of the new borrowed money just pushed prices up and up.
10. As a result, it is impossible to build new houses on fields like these.
This is just outside Watford, that well-known area of outstanding natural beauty. It is part of the metropolitan green belt, which means that it can’t be built on. So no new suburbs. Fair enough, you might say…
11. …But we need to protect the countryside from urban sprawl, right? Wrong.
Just 10.6% of England is classified as “urban”. And that tenth isn’t all concrete: it includes parks, golf courses, gardens, canals, reservoirs and so on. Just 2.27% of England is actually built on.
12. And it is also pretty difficult to turn London’s skyline into something more closely resembling this.
The same planning laws which stop us from building new houses on fields also stop us building taller buildings in central London. It is illegal to build anything that blocks the views of St Paul’s cathedral from several key points - one is a hole in a hedge 10 miles away in Richmond Park. That view is apparently more important than people having somewhere of an OK size to live at a reasonable price.
13. We can’t build up. We can’t build out. Where can we build? Here:
This is near Barking, one of the places the Greater London Authority sees as a place to build lots of new homes. It takes over an hour to get into central London at the moment – because funding hasn’t been agreed for a proper railway line–and yet the houses still cost over £300,000. And the thing is, look at it: making that nice will cost a LOT of money.
14. What this means is that land is really expensive.
At a density of 50 homes per hectare - about normal for a suburban development - that means that planning laws add about £45,000 to the cost of a house. In popular places - near towns such as Oxford or London, the figure is likely to be far more than that.
15. Which may explain why British new homes are the tiniest in the world.
The average new British house is roughly half of the size of a new house built in the 1930s, before planning laws were brought in. Then, a new house in a new railway suburb like Woodford cost £450, or roughly twice an average middle-class salary.
So what’s the solution? Well, we can change the law.
According to the London School of Economics, if we let London expand by one mile into the scrubby green belt within the M25, we could add 1m new homes. Doubling the density of some of zone 2’s neighbourhoods by making it easier to build upwards could have a similar effect. Both would upset people who already own homes nearby—but it would make London’s housing cheaper and more spacious for everyone else.
Or we can spend the rest of our lives fighting economic gladiatorial combat, where the people with the most money get the houses and the people at the bottom get to live five to a room in a B&B in Leicester.
Sounds great, right?
OR we can decide that it is more appropriate to have horse paddocks and farmers within a few miles of Europe’s greatest city than for ordinary people to be able to afford a house. Your choice.