Government accused of prolonging UK housing crisis

Tower block and houses in LondonImage copyright Sam Mellish

The government has been accused of prolonging the national housing crisis by failing to sell enough land for affordable and social housing.

The Public Accounts Committee said the UK would miss its 2020 target of public land sales “by a wide margin”.

It said the government “has wasted a once-in-a-generation opportunity to alleviate the nation’s housing crisis”.

The government said it had delivered 222,000 new homes last year, more than “in all but one of the last 31 years”.

“Government departments have identified enough surplus public sector land for 160,000 new homes and our development accelerator Homes England is providing expert assistance to get these built more quickly,” the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government added.

The Public Accounts Committee calculated the government’s land sale failure would result in 91,000 fewer homes in 2020 than anticipated, equivalent to 57% of its overall target.

“The UK needs more houses. As a major land holder, the government is in a unique position to release land for new homes; and yet the objectives of its land disposal programmes are chaotic and confused,” said committee chair Meg Hillier.

“We are baffled that the programmes were not designed with a view to how many homes were needed of what type, and where – nor how the proceeds will be used.”

Missed target

The plan to release land was stymied from the beginning by muddled thinking and unrealistic targets, the committee said.

“This failure is largely because of the unrealistic targets the centre of government imposed on departments without enough thought about the issues that would need to be overcome to make sales happen.”

Targets were set from the top down, and were “not supported by any evidence on what could realistically be delivered”, the committee said.

Eyes closed

In addition, the government did not look at what type of houses were needed, and where, in deciding whether to sell land, it said.

Instead, it looked at what surplus land it had, and whether it could be sold, the committee said.

The government department responsible for housing, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, has not counted the number of houses built on the land being sold, including affordable and social housing, arguing that local authorities are responsible for this.

But it is “unacceptable” that the department “pays so little attention to how the release of public land could be used to deliver affordable homes including social homes for rent,” the committee said.

Counting the cost

The government is expected to meet a second target of raising £5bn from land sales, but this is mainly down to luck, the committee added.

Being on track for this target “is largely due to the unanticipated sale of Network Rail’s railway arches in February 2019 which raised £1.46bn, nearly 30% of the overall target,” the committee said.

There are unexplained sales, such as why 176 sites were sold for £1 or less between April 2015 and March 2018, the committee added.

There is also a tension between trying to sell the land for the maximum amount possible and expecting developers to then build social housing on that land, the committee added.

In March, an investigation by Huffpost and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggested that as little as 6% of the new homes built on land sold by local authorities were likely to be used for social housing, with some developments being solely luxury apartments.

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