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200 Years Of Housing Policy History In The Uk: We Adapt

By Author: Bradley Weiss
Total Articles: 159

The changes in population, construction and infrastructure technologies have certainly improved homes in the United Kingdom. But Government policy has also played a role.

While the UK is truly in a housing crisis it is not without precedent. We need to accelerate building by about 110,000 homes per year to make up for the shortfall, thought to be in total one million homes and made more urgent by a growing population. But the UK has dealt with pressing needs for housing throughout modern history and has always managed to figure out how to do it. The relative stability of British society bears testimony to our capacity for doing so.

Two organisations have recently documented this history. They are the National Housing Federation (NHF) think tank in its report, “The Politics of Housing,” which largely concentrates on the 20th century; and the NHBC Foundation, “Homes through the decades: the making of modern housing,” a look back to about 1800. NHBC Foundation, established in 2006 by the National House Building Council, largely focuses on a sustainability agenda, risk management and consumers.

The NHF report points out that the current level of housing completions has not been this low since the 1930s, with about 115,000 new homes built in 2010 (it rose a bit to 140,000 completions in 2014). It opines that one barrier to government policy not being more successful at building is that the high degree of ownership in the country - about two-thirds of dwellings are owned by their inhabitants - necessarily dampens efforts to increase supply.

Their rationale is if you own a home in a community you like, you are less inclined to encourage development nearby that will alter your community and add burdens to its infrastructure. This is among the key challenges to capital growth partners who buy UK land and seek planning permission to convert to housing.

Note that in previous periods private ownership levels were lower: It was just 10 per cent in 1914, 25 per cent in 1939, by 1971 ownership reached 50 per cent and by 2001 it reached its peak at 69 per cent. By 2011, largely due to the financial crisis of 2008, the ownership rate declined to 64 per cent. As fewer own, more people rent - and the Buy to Let programme has played a large role in meeting some of that demand.

The NHBC Foundation report traces both the types of homes and infrastructure from the Victorian era to the present, crediting reformers, planners, architects, designers, technologists and construction teams for the advances made through the decades. While investors, such as those who prefer alternative investment funds that build physical communities, and government officials probably should be added to this list, it is clear the Foundation report looks at the broad sweep of players in ensuring comfortable and resilient homes for the British.

To coalesce the analyses of these two perspectives, consider the following points. While not in strict agreement from both analyses, several themes emerge:

• Government has always played a role - Victorian mains sewers, flushing WCs and waste collection were critical to the UK’s population growth in the 19th century. This supported the private sector investments that then could build homes in more places and in different ways.

• Population growth has been a driving factor - The UK population grew from 11 million to 32 million in the 19th century, including the urban growth from 2 million to 20 million.

• Housing is closely tied to economic stability - Since the end of the First World War, Government policy has pegged social and financial stability to housing. This led to the large-scale post-war council house building programme.

• Private ownership has risen dramatically - And as it did, privately rented housing dropped from 89 per cent in 1914 to about 10 per cent in 1999 - but has risen to about 16 per cent today. The trend is considered ahistorical and tied to the above-inflation pace of home price increases.

• The quality of housing stock has markedly improved - In the rush to replace a half-million homes destroyed in the Second World War, prefabrication was developed and enabled the construction of a stunning 354,000 new homes in 1954 alone. But that came at a price in quality. Already variable quality in new privately built homes prompted the establishment of a national registration scheme for house builders in the late 1930s. Tower blocks that introduced high-rise living often proved to be social and financial failures.

• Sprawl has always been a worry - Planning principles that apply today (to some extent) were largely established in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which sought to limit suburban expansion.

Today, we wrestle with questions on the inadequate supply as well as the need for sustainable housing. The private sector has proven to inventive in achieving both objectives, however the planning process is still considered unwieldy, as the question first addressed in 1947, to block suburban expansion, is still unresolved. Developers and home builders have the capital to build, but still must convince local councils that development will benefit existing communities.

Investors in housing recognize the present-day opportunity to build for the UK’s rapidly growing population. But the complexities of investing combined with the many variables of housing require that would-be investors consult an independent financial advisor before taking a position of significance.

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