Brick shortages come and go. Planning restrictions are the real obstacle to house building

An unexpected increase in construction (from an extremely low base) has left building materials, especially bricks, in short supply, leading to a sudden surge in prices. Anti-development activists are having a field day, because this turn of events has provided them with a convenient excuse to explain away the negative effects of their obstructionism. A shortage of bricks, not Nimbyism, is causing the housing crisis, or so we are told.

It comes just at the right time, because the usual excuses are beginning to turn stale. ‘Why build in the countryside when we can build on brownfield sites instead?’, the obstructionists cry. Except, development is already heavily skewed towards brownfield sites, and has been since time series began. Brownfield development already accounts for more than two out of three new homes built. The main reason why it does not really take off in absolute terms is that a large proportion of brownfield land is either in the wrong place, or (for the time being) prohibitively expensive to decontaminate.

‘Why build new homes as long as there are so many empty ones that we could bring back into use?’, the activists say. Yet this is a red herring, because empty housing units rarely remain empty for long. The UK is a fairly mobile place, which is why a large number of houses and flats stand empty at any given point in time. But flats and houses that are left empty for a year or longer account for less than one percentage point of the housing stock, and in London, less than two thirds of a percentage point. Nice try, though.

The shortage of bricks is another non-issue. Construction is an inherently volatile sector, and the prices of input materials fluctuate a lot. But one of the great strengths of a market economy – and this is a point that even most anti-capitalists grudgingly concede – is that price signals usually lead to swift adjustments. In the brick market, this adjustment is already underway. The current world market leader, the Austrian brickmaker Wienerberger, has already announced it will reactivate two currently derelict British brickworks (‘brownfield sites’, if you prefer) and kick-start production there, while also pumping additional investment into their existing UK outlets. Brick imports have also surged. In short, the problem is taking care of itself. Nimby excuses are usually quite transparent, but to blame the housing shortage on a shortage of bricks is a new low.

To make sense of the housing market, we have to distinguish clearly between the short-run and the long-run determinants of housing supply. In the short run, housing completion rates can fluctuate like mad, as they are pushed up and pulled down by a confusing multitude of factors. This is why even at the highest level, housing market experts often disagree in their assessment of current events.

But when it comes to the long run performance of the housing market, things become a lot less complicated. There is a consensus in the empirical literature that ultimately house prices are determined by land use policies: Places that release enough land for development experience stable house prices, places that unduly restrict land for development experience property price inflation (for a review of the literature, see pp. 74-80). It really is as simple as that.

Ever since the late 1980s, annual housing completion rates in the UK have been below 40 housing units per 10,000 inhabitants, trailing well behind the rest of Europe. As a result, we are now the bottom-placed club in terms of residential floors pace per household, far behind any other Western European country. A shortage of bricks is not the reason.

The reason is that we have the most restrictive planning regulations in Europe, the most unreasonable anti-development campaigners, and a political class that is terrified of upsetting the latter. While the politics may be a minefield, the economics is rather simple. We need tax competition between local authorities, so that permitting development becomes fiscally lucrative, and obstructionism becomes expensive. We should abolish greenbelt status, and protect genuinely attractive landscapes in an intelligent and selective manner – not in the form of a blanket development ban. And we need a change in the terms of the debate. We should stop ennobling well-housed drawbridge-pullers, who seek to deny the housing opportunities they take for granted to everyone else, by referring to them as ‘countryside campaigners’ whose ‘concerns’ ought to be ‘taken seriously’. Breaking the housing gridlock is good economics – but it is also the right thing to do.

This article was originally published by ConservativeHome.

 

Kristian, I have said it before - we use land inefficiently when it comes to housing. Contrary to your assertion about planning policies, there are major - and I mean huge - developments on formerly green belt land all around the modest size town where I live in the South East. The gap between my town and the next has almost disappeared. These were forced on the area by central government and the council has had to plan accordingly. But you know what - these developments are overwhelmingly of low rise two-story small houses. There is barely a flat and barely a building over two (or occasionally three) storeys. We could accommodate many more families in less area were developers allowed or required or incentivised (via a land value tax) to build three or four storey terraced houses, or houses with basements, or four or 5 storey flats.
Urban sprawl and small new homes are both the symptoms of capitalised land rent. We wouldn't need planning regulations if "Regulation Tax" (State(all of us) created value), was used to pay for the services share, instead of being privatised. Thus necessitating taxes on work and enterprise. A huge double whammy. I don't agree that planning constraints are responsible for housing affordability issues. But, for arguments sake, lets not quibble about that. Instead, let's ask a simple question. One which Glaeser, Cheshire, Hilber etc fail to ask, let alone address. What happens to a) affordability b) land use efficiency c) NIMBYISM d) planning e) net welfare f) economic growth, if "Regulation Tax" is no longer privatised? I'm genuinely puzzled why anyone wants to blame State regulation for our ills, before asking this question first. Perhaps you'd like to break the mold Kristian and give it a go?
"There is a consensus in the empirical literature that ultimately house prices are determined by land use policies: Places that release enough land for development experience stable house prices, places that unduly restrict land for development experience property price inflation (for a review of the literature, see pp. 74-80). It really is as simple as that." I know I said, I wasn't going to quibble, but it isn't a "simple as that", because the authors of said literature start off with a premise and then fabricate a narrative to fit. All of which can be easily refuted by correlating wages, taxes, coastal locations, natural supply restrictions etc. And there is also are welfare and economic gains from planning constraints that needs to taken into account too. At least Hilber fesses up and says why he isn't necessarily recommending relaxing planning. But, as I said above, it's pointless even arguing about this. Let us instead start off with the premise, land rents are State(all of us) created value. Something we all agree on. What problems occur when this value is privatised(state subsidy/monopoly income), and what happens when it is not? Free-marketeers should want to answer this question first, and move on from that. Baffling why they don't.
@HJ - Yes, quite, we are using land inefficiently. I suppose compact settlements make sense in a lot of circumstances, not least when in places like London, it is already a nuisance that everything is lightyears away from everything. However, most of the time, I hear the precise opposite criticism. The conventional complaint I hear goes something like: 'I'm not against all development per se, but I wish the developers would stop squeezing so much into small patches of land. If they built a few nice, spacious, custom-built family homes, our community would be more relaxed about development.' Personally, I'm agnostic on these matters. Development should be demand-driven, it should be determined by what people want, not what some economist thinks they should want. I don't care if people want to live in high-rise flats or in detached homes with gardens, I want the planning system to get out of the way, so that the industry can provide whatever it is that people demand.
Kris - why wouldn't developers build upwards if they could? They could build a lot more property - much of it more spacious than at present - in a given area if they did, and therefore make a lot more money for the same investment in land. Spreading low-rise housing out creates more congestion, inconvenience and pollution as people have to travel further for facilities. A removal of most height restrictions and a land value tax would make sense.
HJ, yes, I think so too. Just saying, whenever I write anything on the subject, within minutes I get people in the comments section whining about high-rise/high-density development.

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