Have you ever come across a lipogram? A lipogram is a somewhat eccentric literary technique: the art of writing a text from which a particular letter, word, or combination of letters, is entirely banished. Not letters like X or Q, obviously, but a letter that seems impossible to avoid. An example would be the novel Gadsby, which, apparently, does not use the letter E a single time.
That book must have been a formidable challenge to write, but over at the Independent, columnist Owen Jones has composed an even more impressive quasi-lipogram. He has managed to write several articles on housing costs in the UK without once using the terms ‘planning laws’, ‘green belts’, ‘height restrictions’, ‘NIMBYs’, nor any synonyms or related terms. In comparison, Gadsby is a piece of cake.
Despite the unusual literary format, Jones’ description of the symptoms is spot on. He recognises, correctly, that Housing Benefit is a forced redistribution from taxpayers to landlords. He also points out, correctly, that the housing shortage is not just a problem in its own right, but also aggravates a whole range of other social problems.
But that is as far as the lipogram can take us. It does not enable the author to say anything meaningful about how the housing cost crisis can be solved. Jones believes the shortage can be overcome by simply building more council houses. Councils currently face a cap on how much money they can borrow, and Jones argues that money spent on building council houses should be exempt from that cap.
Fair enough. There is indeed something to be said for lifting those borrowing caps, provided it can be coupled with a credible no-bailout clause. However, this would do nothing to overcome the housing shortage, because it is not the borrowing cap that deters councils from building homes. Rather, councils have been taken hostage by well-run anti-housing groups, and the latter have the planning system on their side. You can give councils access to all the housing finance credit in the world, but it would make no difference as long as they have no intention of actually making use of it. Exempting councils’ homebuilding expenses from the borrowing cap would be like exempting Mormons from alcohol duties.
There is no specific bias against the development of public housing the UK. There is a general bias against all housing development in the UK. The same forces which prevent the private sector from building homes would also prevent the public sector from doing so.
The current system is dominated by NIMBY interests, and the NIMBYs are not in the least interested in who is behind a potential building project. The only thing they are interested in is how it can be stopped. Whether the potential homebuilder is a private property developer, a local authority, a group of self-builders, or a fairy that can make houses appear by waving a magic wand, you can count on the NIMBYs to be there faster than Owen Jones can say ‘nationalisation’. With their usual combination of scaremongering (‘concreting over the countryside’) and myth-peddling (‘there are brownfield sites that could be developed instead’), they will try to kill off the project, and they usually get their way.
Planning controls such as green belts are the most regressive policies currently in place in the UK. But their supporters have been smart enough to adapt to the zeitgeist by adopting a vaguely anti-capitalist-sounding rhetoric. The ugly truth is that those policies are the tools with which the lucky few keep out the hoi polloi. But the official version is one of charming local communities trying to defend their little paradise against invaders who, out of sheer malice, seek to destroy everything they hold dear. It is Lord of the Rings all over again, and supposedly ‘radical’ writers like Jones utterly fail to see through it.
Therefore, they miss the fundamental question. There are, on the one hand, almost 2 million households on a housing waiting list. In the bottom quintile of the income distribution, renters spend, on average, about half of their family budget on housing costs. Taxpayers pay £23 billion per year on Housing Benefit - that is almost £800 (!) per household.
On the other hand, there are people who are well-housed, but who dislike the sight of houses other than their own. And now comes the question: does it make sense to tailor our housing policies primarily to the sensitivities of this latter group, and if not, why are we doing it?