Brett Christophers' article in The Guardian last week focussed on the amount of publicly owned land which has left public ownership and has been sold to developers, arguing that this is a 'colossal land privatisation' which has caused 'damages to the social and economic fabric of the nation'.
Councils are building fewer houses than they did in the past and The Independent reported back in November 2017 that the number of new homes built by councils in 2016 was just 1,840 (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/council-housing-uk-lowest-level-records-began-a8059371.html). However the way in which development is carried out has changed over the years and by selling land to developers, councils have had the benefit of capital receipts at an earlier stage whilst avoiding the commercial risks of developing themselves. In turn, private developers can secure external funding from private investors on a basis that a council might not be able to.
Equally, by virtue of the planning process, local planning authorities can continue to play a role in shaping the development and ensuring a suitable amount of affordable housing is provided. Registered Providers have also taken up part of the role previously undertaken by councils in development.
Should councils have more powers to buy back land which has not been developed in order to develop it themselves? This would require funding to be found somewhere within a budget. Could they afford to only develop affordable housing? Would they be allowed to develop market value housing to cross-subsidise the affordable housing? What would the effect be on the private market? Will all homes built by councils in the future be subject to Right to Buy or might Right to Buy be disapplied in the future to preserve the new housing stock?
What about empty homes? The BBC reported in January that 11,000 homes across the UK have been empty for ten years or more and 216,000 have been empty for at least 6 months (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-42536418). It also reports that only 1 in 13 councils are using Empty Dwelling Management Orders. There are of course costs involved in returning empty homes to occupation, including purchase costs and refurbishment where necessary, but this could in some circumstances be a quicker way to bring more housing stock back into use.
There are no easy answers to solving the housing crisis and these issues are just the tip of the iceberg. Salary growth, consumer debt levels and the rise of the gig economy all have an effect, together with more general economic issues facing the country. It could be that Brett Christophers is quite right and that councils need to be given the powers and the money to re-start their building programmes but development is a long game and we are only at kick off.
Since Margaret Thatcher came to power, 10% of the area of Britain has left public ownership. No wonder there’s a housing crisis