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So what WAS behind the Great Housing Stats non-revelation?

So what WAS behind the Great Housing Stats non-revelation?

🕔08.Jan 2019

It’s not, I promise, the main point of this blog, but I really don’t like the practice of percolating out New Year Honours Lists on any slow news day after Christmas, rather than New Year’s Eve itself, writes Chris Game. 

It seems like one of those ‘declining standards’ things that was done ‘properly’ when I was young – like FA Cup 3rd round matches all kicking off at 3.00 on the first Saturday in January – but I probably misremember.

But that’s not all: wouldn’t you think, after 130 years, the Government and Palace between them could decide whether the wretched thing needs an apostrophe ‘s’?

However, my real point in raising this is to suggest that, if this year’s List had been properly published to be drooled over in the papers on January 1st, maybe there wouldn’t have been quite such extensive, and in my view contentious, coverage of what I’m labelling ‘The Great Housing Stats Non-revelation’: namely, that in a year’s time the 2010s will have seen fewer new homes built in England than any decade since the Second World War.

Shocking? Yes. Shaming for the governments in office?  Undoubtedly.  Avoidable? Certainly.  But front-page, headline news?  NO!

We’re talking completed houses, remember, and almost the first thing you notice about houses is that they don’t suddenly appear or disappear, or move around, or hibernate, or pop off for holidays abroad. And they’re big – bigger often than an AEC Routemaster.  Big, static, and easy to count: all reasons why they’re such good things to tax.

And they are counted, when they’re started and when they’re completed – endlessly counted, and categorised, partly because it’s so easy.  So, a shortage doesn’t happen overnight, or even over a few months.  You see it coming years away.

Indeed, I blogged about it in these columns just recently, following the PM’s Conference-pandering announcement of the Government abandoning its cap on councils borrowing against their Housing Revenue Account assets to fund new developments.

Like many others – including the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) – I doubted the more excited predictions, both of the numbers of homes this undeniably welcome change might actually produce and the ambitious timescales envisaged.

I also noted how “during my adult lifetime”, the number of homes – that the statisticians, for some reason, prefer to call ‘dwellings’ – being built in England each year had declined from over 250,000 during most of the 1970s, to around 150,000 when Margaret Thatcher left office in 1990, and by 2010 to 125,000.

And I produced a table showing that since 2010 there’s been what I described as “a slightly-better-than-glacial improvement” – NOT AS BREAKING NEWS, which it obviously wasn’t, but as ILLUSTRATION of the sheer scale of particularly local councils’ problems in quickly gearing themselves up to becoming large-scale home builders again.

For the record, the MHCLG figures I used (Table 209) indicated that in England the total number of completed dwellings had RISEN during the current decade, almost every year, to over 160,000 in 2017/18.

So, if you add in another 160,000 for the 2017/18 already recorded starts (Table 208) to complete the decade, it would show a rise of nearly 50% since 2009/10.  Not great by any standards, but there’s no disputing the recent direction of travel, as arrowed on my adapted line chart.

The chart is based on one on the website of the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), for reasons that will shortly become apparent, my additions, for ease of interpretation, being the decades and changes of government. As noted, the CPS data line appears to record GB, rather than English, data, but it makes no difference whatever to either the overall trends or my argument.

The most obvious conclusion, given the small matter of the 2007/08 global financial crisis, is that, whether as part of a natural post-crisis recovery and/or of certain government policies, housebuilding has increased modestly but steadily since 2010 to the point where in a year’s time it will virtually match not the average of the past three decades, but the highest numbers reached in those decades.

As I’ve suggested, though, even this would hardly count as news, given that houses don’t spring up mushroom-like overnight, but have an on-site gestation period roughly the length of a human pregnancy.

So … what were all those New Year’s Day headlines about, apparently suggesting that newly researched figures had suddenly and shockingly revealed that the country is heading for a statistically unprecedented housing crisis, and moreover that the Conservatives are to blame?

As it happened, the first of the several broadly similar national newspaper headlines I personally saw was The Independent’s, and my immediate thought, especially after seeing the Mirror’s more routinely partisan effort, was that it represented at least a short-lived triumph for probably the Labour Research Department moles, burrowing away over Christmas and coming up with some dubious but ‘killer’ factoid, which would gather further publicity as their Conservative counterparts were rushed back to work to refute it.

How wrong I was!  It not only wasn’t the LRD moles, but actually – almost too good to be true – the Centre for Policy Studies, a bunch of think-tankers so far across to the right of the political spectrum that they’d been co-founded by the afore-mentioned Margaret Thatcher and who, whatever their independent-sounding name, are as committed to her free market/small state/low tax/private ownership ideology as she was.

And that’s my New Year mystery.  At whose initiative I’ve no idea, but somehow Robert Colville, Director of the Conservative-supporting CPS, agreed to write an article in the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph focusing not on, say, how “the Government’s recent efforts to boost construction” had turned around the previously dreadful housing completion numbers, but on how, after nearly a decade of Conservative government, historically awful they still are.

And it gets even odder.  For, in order to get these “fewest new houses since WW2” headlines, you have to pick not the end of the decade (160,000+) – over 30% more completions than when Labour left office, over a tenth more than when Major left office – but the decade average of 130,000.

You also have to focus solely on so-called ‘new build’ completions, rather than the other components of the TOTAL net supply of new housing. And, as was noted in the excellent House of Commons Library research briefing in December, the NET new housing supply this year was actually higher than in those lauded pre-Thatcher 1970s, thanks to the greater change-of-use of existing buildings and fewer demolitions.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not remotely seeking to defend the Government’s housing record, its inadequate response to the genuine and growing housing crisis – well documented in the House of Commons Library briefing – and particularly not October’s much delayed and eventually disappointing Social Housing Green Paper, with its lack of any new funding whatever for new council-built homes.

I just didn’t – and still don’t – get what those New Year headlines and articles were about: statistically sound, but politically perplexing.

At which point, I sense the Editor hoping quite fervently that this blog will not only end pretty quickly, but perhaps, if it’s really not asking too much, with even some new hard information (er, well…Ed.).

The best I can offer is an update of the table I produced for that earlier blog, designed to emphasise the extent to which local authorities’ role in housing provision had plummeted in the decades since they were building well over a third of the annual totals of well over a quarter of a million, and how difficult it will be, even with incentives, quickly to change direction.

In the past year, as we’ve seen, the totals of homes started and completed in England were around 160,000.  Of which, very roughly, private enterprise was responsible for 84%, housing associations for 15%, and local authorities for 1% – just under 1% of starts, just over 1% of completions.

In the metropolitan West Midlands the good news is that our seven district councils collectively managed considerably better – relatively: 2.5% of 4,470 starts and 2.6% of 4,560 completions.

The less encouraging news is that (as described in that earlier blog), with several WM councils having some years ago got out of the housing management business altogether, only half are even potential builders, and just at present they ain’t doing that much of it either.

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