The UK’s broken housing market

Michael Holmes
12 March 2019

Michael Holmes, property expert and spokesperson for The National Homebuilding & Renovating Show (28-31 March, NEC, Birmingham), comments on why the UK housing market is broken – and what can be done about it.

The cause of the housing crisis in the UK is simple enough for any GCSE economics student to understand: there are too many people chasing too few homes to either buy or rent.

The reason behind this is twofold: regional policy has failed to prevent employment and wealth from clustering around Greater London and the South East of England, causing an imbalance in demand (over simplified as ‘the north south divide’), and we have built far too few new homes for generations.

The solution is equally obvious: we need to improve transport and infrastructure and create employment where housing is currently most affordable – which it is across much of the UK – and build more homes where people want and need to live and work.

The latter can only be achieved, however, by granting planning permission for more sites in more locations – and that’s where the problem lies. Almost everyone seems to recognise the need to build more homes for future generations, but also holds the contradictory view that they should be built anywhere except for where they live.

This is an unsustainable position. It is also creating a generation that has no choice but to rent, creating a deeply corrosive divided society. It is also slowly killing communities, especially in the Green Belt and open country, turning small villages in highly sought after areas into dormitory or retirement settlements, where no one under fifty can afford to live.

Ironically, the same people who campaign to prevent new homes in such locations are often the very same people who decry the corresponding loss of the post office, local shop, school and community facilities but cannot see the connection.

Only when we accept that no settlement is too small or too special to sustain at least some level of expansion, even if it is one new home every ten or twenty years, will things change.

The currently insurmountable local opposition to almost all housebuilding would be defused if this approach were put in place through planning policy, and communities were challenged to decide at local level how and where they wanted the necessary new housing. It would also lead to a constructive dialogue about what should be built and for whom.

More small sites, where people actually want to live, will always find buyers and will therefore be delivered. Increased permissions for small sites will also open up the market to small and medium size (SME) housebuilders and those who want to build their own home.

SME housebuilders used to build more than half of all new homes but now deliver only a fraction of this, largely because they cannot access the land market. In most developed economies, an average of 39% of new homes are commissioned by their owners, but currently in the UK this figure is less than 10 per cent.

The Right to Build legislation introduced in England in 2016 is intended to open up the land market to those who want to build their own home. It requires local authorities to assess demand through registers ( and places a duty on them to grant planning permission for enough serviced plots to meet that demand.

The Right to Build means local authorities must facilitate the creation of sites for new homes that are shovel ready, with road access, electricity, water, gas, high speed broadband all in place or ready nearby.

They can do this be working with landowners and developers through planning policy, by utilising public sector land, or like Cherwell DC in Oxfordshire ( by buying land and engaging in placemaking – capturing a share of the planning gain and generating much needed revenue in the process.

These sites need not just be small and single plots, they can form part of a larger strategic housing site as identified by Sir Oliver Letwin’s Independent Review of Build Out published in November 2018, which recognised that the serviced plots market can open up large sites that could otherwise take decades to deliver, to new markets, accelerating the delivery of new homes.

Speculative-volume house builders build at a long-term average rate of around 2.6 sales per month per site outside London. Subdividing these larger sites to bring in competitors can double the rate of sales and so see the site built out faster.

Research by the Home Builders Federation (HBF) found that 33% of the public would consider buying a new home from their members. The National Custom and Self Build Association (NaCSBA) believes that many more buyers would also consider newbuild if there was more choice, ranging from simple upgrades to a blank canvass to create a one-off design, and everything in between.

The UK Government is committed to solving the housing crisis. It acknowledges the need to build more homes, and is very supportive of the custom- and self-build market, which it has pledged to grow to 20,000 homes a year by 2020.

The National Custom and Self Build Association (NaCSBA) has ambitions to take this much further to 50-60,000 homes a year by 2030, or 20% of new homes, more in line with Europe, the US, Canada Japan and Australia.

Housing is one of the very few consumer markets in the UK where there is limited choice and competition.

Transforming the market for building land, so there is access for new challengers alongside the volume housebuilders will allow the market for new homes to function more like other consumer products, where supply can rise to meet demand, and choice and competition can drive quality, innovation, and above all else, affordability.

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