Channel 4’s Dispatches last night (7th November, 2016)
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
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.
That seems pretty fair to me.