There was a time when housebuilders looked to the planning minister to deliver reforms that would help the industry. These days the big reforms now come from the Treasury. George Osborne is on a mission to present himself as our prime minister in-waiting. The last chancellor of the Exchequer keen to be PM forecast the end of the boom and bust and talked of endogenous growth theory. That did not end well, so it’s understandable that Osborne is keener to talk about issues that will widen his appeal.
But there is another reason that the Treasury is trying to boost housing numbers. UK productivity is lower now than it was in 2007. American workers are 9% more productive than in 2007 and even the French get 2% more output from everyday worked. Quite why we British are so unproductive is unclear, but Osborne believes that more housing would help. It would also allow workers to move between jobs and firms to set up in areas that best suit them.
This is the background behind the planning reforms announced in July’s Budget (yes, the Budget is not just about fags and booze, now it’s about planning reform). These grant permission automatically to sites on the brownfield register and promise a new zonal system of land allocation. Much of the government’s strategy revolves around getting better delivery from the existing system. Whitehall will write local plans for laggard councils and step in to make decisions when authorities drag their feet. There will be a reform of compulsory purchase laws and housebuilders are being told to renegotiate the provision of rented social housing because RSLs, falling foul of the benefits crap, cannot deliver.
Osborne’s problem is that the changes need to present so much political risk they could derail his political ambitions. Last month, Hampton’s Ability to Buy Index demonstrated that housing outside London and the south east is more affordable now than it was in 2007. Only in the capital and surrounding countries is it less affordable.
And here is Osborne’s problem. London is the powerhouse of the UK economy. If you want to improve productivity you must improve housing supply here. To do that requires interventions that are politically unpalatable: rewarding green belt or replacing low density suburbs with high density housing. Osborne has correctly identified the problem, but his solution will miss the mark.