My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, on securing this debate. It was a subject I wanted to debate myself so I was almost the first to sign up. Then fashion and the Conservative Party conference caught up, and there are many more of us here today.
I have two perspectives on housing. The first is social. Lack of adequate housing growth, alongside population growth, is undermining society in this country. In 1991, 67% of 25 to 34 year-olds owned a home. By 2014, this had fallen to 36%. According to PwC, Generation Rent—those aged 20 to 39—would have to save for 19 years to buy a home, and more in London. At the other end of the life cycle there are more and more elderly people, and more and more of them are living alone, often in a state of fragility. We seem to have lost that social glue which had generations helping each other. The noble Lord also mentioned the problem of homelessness.
My second preoccupation is productivity, although it can be a slightly disheartening issue to focus on given the flatlining since 2010. I think I achieved a lot more productivity-wise when I worked at Tesco, when we were conscious that £1 in every £7 was spent in our stores and we took pride in good management of people, in discipline and in improvement in processes. That included building techniques and cleaning up brownfield sites, which are relevant today; driving small-scale innovation and investing in ICT and skills. It is the combination of capital, skills and management that makes a difference. Housing could be a critical driver of greater productivity, as well as helping mend the country’s social fabric. I should confess that I am no expert, although we did build some houses when I was at Tesco as part of mixed-use schemes. I should also declare an interest as the landlord of a cottage close to our Wiltshire home which is rented to a local couple.
Reading the papers for this debate, I was struck by the sheer complexity of the subject and the plethora of policies and regulatory changes. It was not surprising that February’s White Paper was called Fixing Our Broken Housing Market. I am a big fan of the Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, but he should be allowed to be more radical. Housing is in crisis, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, has already said.
I am not going to distinguish between housing in general and affordable housing, as I am of the view that the way to lower prices is to increase the overall supply. We are in a bad place: during the last three and half decades, the number of housing units completed per 10,000 inhabitants has declined and is exceptionally low by international standards. Housing is also in the wrong place, as the centres of economic activity have shifted south. The authorities have failed to predict that, or to predict the level of immigration and the needs of the ageing population, and have, I think, been too ready to believe that planning restrictions redirect housing development rather than restricting it. Elements of the development industry and incumbents like prices to stay high. Nimbyism is also one of the strongest forces in the British countryside.
I have six proposals, mainly to increase supply. First, and most important, the best way to do this is to change the planning system. My own view is that the green belt should be relaxed. Small and undistinguished sections of the green belt could, as I understand it, make a space for as many as a million homes in areas around London, Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge, helping us to support growth and productivity in these areas, which contribute so much to our economy. We should also look creatively at height restrictions, not everywhere of course, but where slightly taller buildings could provide more homes without environmental damage. We should also free up public land for housing, alongside public buildings, rail tracks and motorways, with double glazing and noise reduction transforming what is possible. I appreciate that the politics of this are very difficult but we are in a crisis, and a commission of wise people might be needed to establish what should be done as a matter of national urgency.
Secondly, the private sector should lead the way in housebuilding, but we should encourage small builders as well as the larger developers who can produce at scale. It might be worth considering a tax break for them for this purpose. Local authorities are being given a bigger role but, as far as this happens, the focus should be on areas unlikely to attract private investment, such as public land, and it should not be confined to areas governed by the particular local authority. It would be more cost effective for councils where land is expensive, such as in central London, to fund building elsewhere in cheaper areas.
My third point concerns building standards. I am free market in my attitudes but I am a keen supporter of modern building standards. These have helped to reduce noise, prevent fires and encourage a step change in energy efficiency. However, there are weaknesses. New tower blocks, rightly, require sprinklers, but how could anyone have agreed that this standard did not apply to blocks being expensively renovated?
My fourth point is joined-up infrastructure and housing development. One problem that we have is that housing, infrastructure and other development are looked at in different boxes. That is one reason why, in the autumn spending statement last year, we announced what I call the “roundabout fund”—the money for which local authorities can bid for local road and roundabout improvements. These ease congestion and can free up land for housing or business parks.
Fifthly, with regard to incentives, we need a market that can work so that people can buy and sell their houses and move around in pursuit of work. They need to upsize and downsize according to need. Council house sales have been a major driver of physical and indeed social mobility, and we should encourage more of that. The huge increases in stamp duty above the lowest levels have, to my mind, been a mistake, discouraging mobility.
Finally, good regulation and simple administration are needed to encourage building and planning. In the interests of time, I will cite just one graphic example concerning a former civil servant. His housing associations were being merged, and that required two “referenda” of the housing association membership within the space of a couple of months, with all manner of documentation, consultations and financial assurances—weightier, as he said, than the Brexit decision process.