Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

What We Need Is Councils to Build More; City Comment

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

What We Need Is Councils to Build More; City Comment

Article excerpt

Byline: Anthony Hilton

ONE of the fascinating things about policies is that every time one party says something so stupid you refuse to believe it could be topped, the other party immediately contrives to think of something even more absurd.

We had a classic example over the weekend. A group of potential Labour MPs announced through a letter to the Observer that they think Labour should re-nationalise the railways.

Putting to one side the fact that the tracks, points, signals and a lot of the stations are already owned by the state through Network Rail, and that the amount of money being invested on improvements and going out in subsidies is massively more than it ever was when the entire organisation was state owned, it is hard to imagine any policy less relevant to the challenges which Britain faces today.

Hard, but not impossible, because over in the Sunday Times the housing minister Nick Boles was leaking the content of a speech scheduled to be delivered today. In it he unveils his grand plan to solve Britain's housing crisis, with a policy which he says will take centre stage if the Conservatives get back into office after the election.

He wants more people to build their own home and he intends to introduce a requirement which, under certain circumstances, would force councils to provide the plot of land on which these individuals could build.

Getting rather carried away albeit not yet by men in white coats the minister suggested that there could be 100,000 plots available by next year, and implied that 50,000 homes a year could be built in this manner.

Now let's pause here for a moment. For most of the years since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK has struggled to build much more 100,000 houses a year. Now, with the market recovering, the rate has stepped up but it still appears to be well under 150,000.

This is an interesting statistic to set against the additional 50,000 a year which the Minister thinks could be built privately. Some might think that estimate delusional it certainly seems wildly optimistic but it also takes no account of a further local difficulty. Even the limited rise which we have seen in housing starts in the past year has put pressure on resources. Leaders in the industry are already talking about potential shortages of skilled workers bricklayers and the like the more so because many of the Poles and other EU nationals who worked in the industry in earlier good times have gone home.

Now it seems unlikely that 50,000 individuals a year will build their own homes for one year let alone the next 20 years as the minister implies citing research that one million people have that ambition. But just suppose it were to happen this year or next: let's pretend the council gives them decent land not some former refuse dump it wants to get rid of and that they have an architect willing to fight their idiosyncratic designs through planning, and that they then successfully raise the finance from banks which really do not like self-build, so they are all ready to go. …

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