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Forget narrow demands - Work together for more homes

Any day now we’ll hear the date for the Autumn Budget: it may be delayed to wait for a Brexit deal (yes, seriously, the government says there may be one) but the hot money is on the second half of November for Chancellor Phillip Hammond coming to the Commons.

The naming of the Budget date will be followed, as night follows day, by press releases from property industry trade bodies and some individuals demanding the government use the Budget to introduce/scrap/amend (delete as appropriate) a controversial measure.

These demands are usually eminently sensible, but ultimately seem a waste of time.

Further reform of stamp duty is a regular request (but be careful what you wish for on this...) while more specific demands may include a call for a cap on letting agents’ fees (instead of an outright ban) or changes to Capital Gains Tax bands or the like.

It’s all familiar enough and all of these specifics are well-argued - but, of course, these add up to a wish list that’s frankly unlikely to be granted by a government majoring on Brexit.

This year, might it not be an idea for the burgeoning number of trade groups within the agency and property sectors to abandon traditional narrow Budget demands, and instead go for something more fundamental and far more valuable - more new homes.

The housing shortage has been well-chronicled in the past - for decades, in fact - but seems to have fallen off the front pages in recent months. It’s worth reminding ourselves of the figures that describe the overcrowding, poor quality family life and sometimes poverty that goes hand-in-hand with a housing shortage:

  • The shortfall of new affordable homes in England will soon be equivalent to a city the size of Leeds according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which says supply has fallen short of demand by 30,000 every year since 2011. This cumulative shortfall could reach 335,000 by the end of this parliament;
  • The Select Committee on Economic Affairs says housebuilding in England has increased from around 115,000 a year in the early 2010s to 217,350 net additional dwellings in 2016/17 - but even this exceptional growth is still around 30 per cent below the government’s own target of 300,000 to maintain parity with growing demand;
  • Stocks of council houses across England, Scotland and Wales have dropped to 2m and have more than halved in the last 20 years; more than 170,000 council homes have been lost since 2010 alone; Northern Ireland stopped collecting the data in 2014;
  • The Local Government Association says enough homes to house the population of Oxford have been sold off under Right to Buy since 2012; that’s 54,581 homes have been sold but just 12,472 built to replace them;
  • Figures from Shelter (which arguably has an anti-agent agenda but nonetheless has a good record on statistics) show that 1.15m households were on waiting lists last year, with only 290,000 homes available, leaving a national shortfall of 800,000-plus homes.

So in the light of those figures and many more that could have been quoted, let’s at least admit that there is a housing shortage.

So why do we argue for tweaks to tax or modifications to regulations when instead, as an industry, we could unite and just ask for one thing - more homes?

Of course, any Budget announcement to this effect would involve Phillip Hammond going off-piste - he’d have to promise easing planning regulations, possibly relaxing some Green Belt restrictions and facing down the NIMBY lobby. It’s more than the normal Budget stuff.

But demanding that he do this is worth a try...and is surely more valuable to the country than a narrow request to amend one tax law or ease up on one lettings rule.

Arguments that could persuade the Chancellor could include more tax paid by the construction industry; more tax revenues from individuals via stamp duty, inheritance tax and CGT; extra infrastructure funded by developers secure planning consent for new housing; and, of course, the political goal of reducing the housing shortage.

So why don’t we think twice when the Budget is announced, forsake our hobby horses and instead try for something bigger - genuine progress on solving a housing shortage.

Simplistic? Of course. But better to try and maybe be successful, than not to try at all.

*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn

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