Affordable homes to rent – not buy – will rebalance the property market

Locally generated building is good for everyone

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The Independent Online

Headlines about rising house prices may persuade observers that the housing crisis is over, and that the nation can safely return to the behaviour that caused the financial crisis in the first place. This would be a tragic waste of a huge economic opportunity.

The national housing crisis has been a long time in the making: a lack of housing that can be afforded by young working families, while rents soar; the future of farming at risk, because there is nowhere for retiring farmers to live; unsustainable villages becoming the preserve of wealthy retirees, with schools and post offices closed down.

For decades, in contrast to every other developed Western economy, Britain has been underinvesting in new homes. The consequences are all too apparent: two million families on council waiting lists for affordable homes, annual expenditure of over £20bn on housing benefit. The number of new homes built every year needs to treble, to around 300,000. No wonder Shelter could only raise half a cheer for last week's news that housing starts in England rose 7 per cent to 110,000 in the year to June, generating headlines that "Britain is building again".

Half of the new homes should be for rent or shared ownership, built on brownfield land in urban areas and in small developments alongside villages where the new homes house local families, are welcomed by local people, and where the land is invested through a Community Land Trust.

In a report published at the end of last year, the Future Homes Commission showed how the housing crisis could be turned into a massive opportunity for economic growth. Trebling the number of new homes built every year for 20 years would add at least 3 percentage points to annual GDP growth, an economic prize comparable to the impact of shale gas on the North American economy. If half of the new homes are in sustainable communities of rental or shared ownership properties, these would be funded by pension funds and international real estate investors. No additional government funding would be needed.

Despite the scale of the housing crisis and the size of the economic growth opportunity, local authority pension funds' pressing need for better investment returns, and the relaxation of Treasury constraints on these funds (which could free up as much as £30bn for investment in rental housing and infrastructure projects), progress towards the goal of trebling the number of new homes built every year has so far been disappointing. The Government's Help to Buy scheme does nothing to make housing more affordable or for would-be tenants, and a new house-price bubble could form.

Far from being embraced as a massive economic and social opportunity, the housing crisis is deepening; and millions of couples are having to postpone setting up home together. Nationally, the average age of first-timers buying without parental help is 33; in rural areas, where wages are lower and house prices are higher, it takes even longer. Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are backing affordable housing, and Lord Heseltine ensured that over £5bn of EU growth funding was allocated directly to LEPs, bypassing both Whitehall and local councils. Now there is no planning bureaucracy standing in the way of local communities having the homes they want and at prices they can afford: well-designed and energy-efficient homes can be built for £100,000. LEPs could kickstart the expansion of build-to-let homes and communities.

By separating developments of homes for rent and shared ownership from market housing, both sectors would benefit. Market housing would not be compromised by the need to accommodate a percentage of "affordable" homes (which are anything but). Towns and villages could have the number of new homes they wanted, rather than huge developments which rarely go ahead. Existing social landlords would be well-placed to manage the completed developments. These, in turn, could be sold on to pension funds and other investors, freeing up LEP funds for more local schemes.

The LEPs now have all the tools to address the local housing crisis and generate economic growth of over 3 per cent a year which will be sustainable for a generation, without leading to another house-price bubble. Now it could be harvest time, turning the local housing crisis into the economic and social opportunity for which the countryside has been waiting for decades.

Sir John Banham, chairman of the Future Homes Commission, is a former director general of the CBI