If I were to ask you to picture campaigners on housing and planning, I’m fairly confident that you’d imagine no more than two types of people. The first group are resolute defenders of their local green belt, and are perhaps residents of a small town or village within commuting distance of London. The second group are likely to be younger, desperately concerned about the housing shortage, and passionately believing that Britain needs to build more affordable homes.
Although these groups have very little in common, and share drastically different backgrounds and priorities, they are too often united in at least one thing: a suspicion of, or even antagonism towards private sector housebuilders.
In the case of rural opponents to new homes, the anti-private sector sentiment is logical. After all, developers are the agents of the very change they are opposing. However, the hostility to private housebuilders (who deliver the overwhelming majority of new homes) among those who are most concerned about housing under-delivery seems counter-intuitive.
The odd logic of the ‘pro-building, anti-private sector’ view was on display during Channel 4’s Dispatches programme on the housebuilding industry, aired on Monday night. The programme began by setting out the stark realities of the housing crisis, with vox pops of young people doubting that they would ever own their own home. Based on this alone, you might be forgiven for thinking that the programme would go on to analyse the problems preventing Britain from building the homes it needs, and offer solutions to boost delivery (spoiler: it didn’t).
The bulk of Channel 4’s documentary was dedicated to attacking private developers. At first, the programme criticised attempts by developers to increase the density of schemes, and reduce affordable provision. There seemed to be no understanding from the film-makers that delivering sufficient density is crucial to ensuring that the provision of affordable units remains viable.
Dispatches went on to interview (at length) the leader of a ‘save the green belt’ political party in Surrey, allowing the airing of anti-development views without the balance of a pro-building perspective. The programme lost sight of the problem - a chronic under-provision of homes - and instead decided the enemy were the private companies that delivered the overwhelming majority of 2016 housing completions.
Now, it would of course be naïve to suggest that problems do not exist with the way that private housebuilding takes place. But, as highlighted by Shelter’s Toby Lloyd, private housebuilders are rational actors within a flawed market. This is the market that has perpetuated a chronic under-delivery of homes for generations, and to blame individual companies within it is misguided and counter-productive.
Delivering the homes that Britain needs is a huge challenge for government, the housing industry, and campaigners. This monumental task will not be helped by directing unnecessary and unjustified criticism at individual companies that have no power to change the competitive housing market. Without a relentless focus on the real barriers to the delivery of more high quality and affordable homes, an end to Britain’s housing crisis will never be within reach.
This article was written by Richard Parry, Account Manager at MPC.