We need more evidence on tenure and occupancy

It is sometimes argued that policy changes which affect landlords can have no effect on the balance of supply and demand for tenants because the properties which may move between being rented and owner occupation will still exist, and will be occupied all the same.  See for example these recent tweets Continue reading We need more evidence on tenure and occupancy

Flooding, engineering, planning and politics

Reposted from my local Forum, 16 Jan, 2014, with a more helpful title, and some editing.  It rambles a bit, but putting here now because it touches on various questions which arose yesterday (July 25, 2018) when I attended a consultation event on ‘De-risking’ growth in the Cambridge Milton Keynes Oxford arc. 

I’m thinking about it now as much as raising the general problem of why landowners and other interested parties fail to co-operate.

The trigger here is this BBC interview with a member of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) as reported here:

Back-to-nature flood schemes need ‘government leadership’

Continue reading Flooding, engineering, planning and politics

South Anywhere County Development Corporation / Equity for land rights funding

Rather than purchase land for some monetary amount, compulsorily or otherwise, and load local authorities / development corporations with debt, a South Anywhere County Development Corporation (SACDC) would issue equity to landowners whose land was affected by the JSP, in exchange for rights SACDC acquired over the land.  Continue reading South Anywhere County Development Corporation / Equity for land rights funding

A solution to the asset rich, cash poor problem

This is something I wrote last year, but didn’t publish. I just saw a tweet to which it seems relevant, so with some minor changes I’m publishing it here now. On rereading, I feel it deserves a more thorough rewrite, but I think the central idea, a revenue neutral, non market distorting change to the operation of the Land Registry to allow more efficient property taxation is a good one.  Happy to discuss further. Continue reading A solution to the asset rich, cash poor problem

The Long Short for Generation Rent

How are Generation Renters supposed to get on with their lives when housing is so unaffordable that they have no realistic hope of buying their own property – and quite possibly would be ill advised to do so anyway?

It’s an agonising personal question for millions of young people, but I’m not aware of any policy responses to it – handwringing doesn’t count.  I did hear something constructive last night when I went to the inaugural lecture of the LSE’s new Professor of Economic Geography, Christian Hilber

who explained very clearly how to make housing more affordable – build more – but that is a different question, which is going to take a long time in any case, since the politics aren’t going to be easy.

Most of those young people, to whose plight the political classes pay lip service, but give no answers, probably still hope vaguely for some political answer, although many will have given up hope.  Here I want to suggest a social response, although it emerges from thinking about the economics of the problem, and from the social response there could be political consequences.

Why ‘The Long Short’?

Although I have followed the writings of Christian Hilber and others in the LSE SERC department, I hadn’t realised that he had been working in Fannie Mae at the same time as the unlikely collection of odd balls described by Michael Lewis in The Big Short were looking at the same numbers, and coming to the same conclusion, that the status quo was unsustainable.  As Prof. Hilber explained, he isn’t that sort of market animal, and now, in the UK, it is even harder to imagine an arbitrageur finding a way to put on the big short.  However, our young people, wanting to own somewhere but realising they cannot, already, in effect, have a short position,  but one which will only pay off in the long run.  In the meantime, it needs to be financed, and that can be painful.

Financing the Long Short

The easy part of this is saying what’s involved – the hard part is accepting it.  In essence, the financing is just keep on paying the rent, but there’s a bit more to it than that.  As a renter, you will want a relationship with your landlord which is as healthy and professional as possible, so that they, as a matter of business, prefer to have you as a tenant than go to the trouble of finding a new tenant.  Agents’ fees for new lets, paid by landlords or tenants, are a bad sign, suggesting that agents are making money out of undue tenant churn.  

If rents for similar properties as yours come down, you’d want to have an agreement with your landlord that your rent should come down in line, without you having to move to such a similar but lower rent property.  In areas like London, it’s sometimes hard to believe that rents can come down, but supply and demand really does operate in the rental market.  Here’s one recent story from the BBC

Rents fall for first time in six years

Conversely, your landlord will want the agreement to allow your rent to rise in line with rents on similar properties if they go up.  That is only fair – and the alternative, which is what we have now, is a system of short term lets where landlords can increase the rent as much as they can anyway.

In either case, it will be helpful if authoritative numbers are being published for what rents on similar properties are doing.  This raises a policy question – can local authorities provide such a service?  It would need financing, but it has been done in Germany for years, and where stable renting is entirely normal, and being in ‘Generation Rent’ is not an issue.

Financing any position in housing involves paying for the maintenance of the property.  Someone has to do it, and most of the costs will be borne by the renter, so the renter will want to find a landlord whose property managers can deliver good long term value for money.  Easier said than done, but as a rule of thumb, large landlords, especially if they have a reputation to maintain, will be better, although small landlords may also be able to subcontract these responsibilities to a proven property maintenance company.  Having a landlord take responsibility for the maintenance is also likely to be better than doing it yourself.  Some people will have the skills to maintain properties more economically than professionals, but in blocks of flats, this will often be out of the owner’s hands.  There should be a way to find out how well landlords do maintenance.  Either I do not know of it, or else there is an opportunity for someone to provide such a service – call it Which Landlord?

Living the Long Short

This is where the sociology comes in.  In the UK, property ownership carries an extraordinary social weight.  ‘Buying your first property’ feels like an essential marker of having become a full member of society, and renters are often seen as not having put roots down where they live, so not quite accepted into community decision making, even if they felt inclined to participate anyway.  To suggest to anyone that they should accept the idea of renting while they get on with their lives will, to most people, be offensive.  To that significant but well connected group within Generation Rent with access to the Bank of Mum and Dad, or just well enough paid jobs that they can see their way to getting a deposit, it may also seem unnecessary.  Psychologically it will be easier to conform to their elders’ social norms, and proudly – nervously? – step on to the housing ladder.  Once in position, with the danger of negative equity if housing does become more affordable, they will become some of the strongest defenders of the status quo.  It will not be easy for their peers – school friends and work colleagues – to follow their alternative life choice with pride, living the long short.

However, the economics of housing mean there are millions who face this choice, between complacency, embarrassment or a sense of victimhood, and getting on with their lives undamaged.  And those who can could transform our politics.  In many ways, they would be like an earlier generation of a reformist Left:

  • driven by economic interests to achieve a fairer society, but
  • dealing with professionally with others, e.g. landlords,
  • using municipal power to publish information about rents to help markets work more effectively, and
  • pushing for good quality independent information about landlords

They would also campaign for an adequate supply of new housing, in well planned developments, but with no ideological demands for it to be owner occupied, social or private rented sector.  Even so, those who have bought into the norms of the previous generation will attack them as dangerous subversives.

So, for the time being, no political party shows much interest in doing anything for this Generation Rent, even though social attitudes should encourage them to do so – this taken from Professor Hilber’s lecture.


Nimbyism explained – 2

A while back – August 2013 – I posted this on my local Forum:

I had a eureka moment about this a few days ago – the rise of the NIMBY is a consequence of greater fragmentation of freeholding. It’s obvious really – if more occupiers have the legal rights of freeholders, they will use them to oppose development, and if there are fewer opportunities for large scale freeholders to redevelop areas, coherently and benefiting from economies of scale, fewer houses will be built, and in retail commercial property, High streets will be left to decline. So it’s unhelpful to blame the individual nimby, or even their organised representatives, as also it is unhelpful to blame developers for being greedier and more short-sighted than those of previous generations.

Nimbyism explained?

I still think all that is true, but in looking back just to the post war era, I realise now I was missing a much longer history.  So it was that I felt blown away seeing this recently, written in 1685, referring to an Act of parliament from 1588:

Now the reason of this was the People of England were a little before that time under the same mistake, as they are generally now, and cried out against the Builders, that the City would grow too big; and therefore in the 38 of Queen Elizabeth they made a Law to prohibit Buildings in the City of London; which though it was but a probationary Act, to continue only to the next Sessions of Parliament (which was but a short time) yet its effects were long; For it frighted the Builders, and obstructed the growth of the City; and none built for thirty years after, all King James his Reign, without his Majesties License; But for want of Houses the increase of the People went into other parts of the world; For within this space of time were those great Plantations of New England, Virginia, Mariland, and Burmudas began; and that this want of Houses was the occasion is plain; For they could not build in the Country, because of the Law against Cottages.


The author, Nicholas Barbon, is hardly a reliable witness, but the legislation is clear enough.  The extent to which it was obeyed is another matter, currently leading me down lines of thought in economic history, but given the opposition Nicholas Barbon faced when he chose to ignore the law in the redevelopment of Red Lion Square, it must have had some impact.

What was going on here? There will be an explanation in the public promotion of the virtues of rural life, sturdy independent peasantry, and seeing decay and corruption in the cities.  It’s well a established tradition going back to the ancient world.  Let’s not discount that, but maybe agglomeration economies have been there since people started settling in cities, and would soon have been followed by arguments to justify, and legal devices to enforce, the capture of those economies by powerful interests now within those cities.  Why would they not, when there will always be very good reasons for regulating the growth of cities, which nimbyism can piggy back off?

Restricting housing supply

Channel 4’s Dispatches last night (7th November, 2016)

Britain’s Homebuilding Scandal

lays the blame for restricting housing supply firmly on developers – and much of the content is also here in the Telegraph, in a piece written by the Channel 4 presenter, Liam Halligan

It’s time to get building: Sajid Javid pledges to break the housebuilding logjam

Towards the end of the Channel 4 programme Liam Halligan says he is an economist, and a believer in free markets, but nowhere does he explore how artificially restricting supply can be a sustainable strategy for house builders.  When selling properties from a large development, a developer will have some kind of temporary local monopoly, and they will indeed sell them gradually, rather than dump them all on the market at whatever price they can get.  But buyers can still shop around, and look at properties coming on the market in different areas, from different developers.  Developers will have an interest in getting their stock sold.

If there was some kind of collusion between developers, this would be something for government to investigate, and impose suitable sanctions – but there was nothing about this possibility in these reports.  Instead, it was observed that the house building market had become much more concentrated in recent years.  This is true, but it is still far less concentrated than, for example, supermarkets, and yet these are very competitive, at least in what they offer consumers.  There was some film of some small developers itching to get their hands on a large, undeveloped site, but no suggestion that development might be financially risky.  This is hardly surprising, since the assertion is that developers are, in the jargon, systematic and successful rent seekers.  Actually, development can be quite risky


and whatever those risks have been should help explain why there has been a concentration in the sector, from which a more satisfactory explanation might emerge of why developers do not build as fast as hoped.  It might work as journalism, but it is not good economics.

Elsewhere, Andrew Whitaker of the House Builders Federation was asked what the impact would be of measures to penalise his members for not building where planning permission had been given.  (I assume this would be outline, but that was not said). His answer was exactly what an economist would have anticipated should the amount of landbanking by developers be part of a normal competitive business model – it would mean a reduction of supply.  Instead, Liam Halligan asked him, menacingly, if this conclusion was actually a threat.  So much for  a belief in free market economics.

The most obvious factor restricting housing supply, it hardly needs saying, is the planning system, but we are were we are with this, and big developers respond by getting hold of, or putting down markers, on site which they may want to build on in due course.  However, another factor, mentioned briefly, is the large amount of land held by public bodies.  What is stopping them getting on with developing this land. teaming up with developers who are ready to break open the current restrictive practices?  Either getting development done is not quite as easy as imagined, or there is some kind of cartel stopping any developer breaking ranks in this way, or the real culprits for holding back development are in the public sector.

Interesting questions, investigation of which would have made a better report.

For more on landbanking, see this report from Savills

In summary, our analysis suggests that land with capacity for around 80,000-100,000 homes could be considered ‘unimplemented’. This is far below those figures suggested by other analysis, but may still be too high for a Government looking to increase housing delivery. As the Office of Fair Trading 2008 report showed, housebuilders’ approach to the land market is a consequence of the current system and they simply build homes at the rate they can sell them.

If Government is serious about increasing housing supply over the long term then it will need to look beyond the planning system and encourage greater activity from the full spectrum of potential housebuilders including SMEs, housing associations, local authorities, the wider construction industry, and Government.

Stuck In The Planning Pipeline

That seems pretty fair to me.

To more satisfactory discussions about housing

I had one of those unsatisfactory conversations about housing recently.  It wasn’t a big deal, and it was politely conducted, which is always a plus.  I’ll not go into some details, because it was a private conversation, and in any case those I omit are inessential.  The essence was that it would help the UK housing crisis if rental contracts were made more favourable to tenants, in a way apparently normal in Germany. Continue reading To more satisfactory discussions about housing

Adam Smith on neo-liberals

I’m currently reading Simon Schama’s “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution”. It would be superfluous to add to general praise it has won since publication nearly 30 years ago, but for what it’s worth, here’s the NYT review of it.

This blog is merely triggered by his account of Turgot’s 1776 economic policy disaster.  Constraints on trade and prices were suddenly removed, people rioted, Turgot was dismissed, and Simon Schama’s writing conveys a knowing roll of the eyes.  To my modern mind, familiar with cases of countries not responding as hoped to the shock imposition of neo-liberal policy prescriptions, the story seems rather familiar. Continue reading Adam Smith on neo-liberals