The foundations of our recovery

Housing has dominated the headlines again recently.

Last month, Nick Clegg championed the creation of a new generation of "garden cities and suburbs for the 21st century", while the housing minister, Nick Boles, sparked debate by calling for relaxations to planning policy in relation to greenfield land in order to boost new housing supply.

Despite the rhetoric, there was conspicuously little in the way of new announcements on housing in the Autumn Statement last Wednesday. The Chancellor did confirm "funding and reforms" to assist the construction of 120,000 homes, but it is unclear whether this is new.

Calling for more house building and relaxed planning regulations is always likely to polarise public opinion, but the scale of the challenge means that the government must tackle housing supply head on. The Department for Communities and Local Government estimates that we need 232,000 homes each year to keep pace with demand. Analysts have shown that building 100,000 additional houses in a year, over and above the number expected to be built anyway, would boost gross domestic product (GDP) by one per cent, while in the long term an increase in provision would allow people greater flexibility about where they live and work.

So how do we achieve the step change in housing delivery that we need? Over the long term, it is clear that all policy options must be on the table, including using brownfield sites and surplus public property assets, bringing empty properties back into active use and releasing new land for building. But it is equally important that any national strategy for delivering more housing takes into account the specific needs and local economies of different towns and cities.

Every city is different and the government must recognise that a blanket national house building policy is unlikely to be effective. Some cities need to build more homes to meet demand; some need to improve the quality of their existing stock; and others need to work on the housing mix available to residents by, say, delivering more family homes or flats.

Government must engage more effectively with local authorities, which are ultimately best placed to understand and respond to the needs of their areas. And it is vital that the incentives to build in the areas with highest demand and lowest supply are large enough to counterbalance the persuasion of any local interest or nimbyism.

Successfully reforming housing policy, ensuring it works for the benefit of local and national economies, would make a significant contribution to growth and jobs in both the short and longer term. Given the scale of the social and economic challenges involved, we must make progress now, and home building should be high on the government's list of priorities to support future economic growth.

Alexandra Jones is the chief executive of the Centre for Cities


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