Sunday, June 5, 2011

Generation Rent

Suddenly people are taking an interest in housing. About time, since as well as its key role in the collapse of the Great Moderation, housing is one area where the UK could do with a serious rethink: let's face it, British housing is either incredibly expensive or of lousy quality, and often both.

Andrew Rawnsley presents what is actually a pretty sound analysis of the housing issue in today's Observer. His conclusion: we need to build more houses. He's right of course, but there is a problem. First, this government will never allow the planning liberalization that is required, because its voters are key beneficiaries of the current situation. Second, the places where we need housing to be built are already occupied - basically London and the South-East, and the more vibrant northern cities. Although southern England is nowhere near as full as some people suggest, there isn't a whole lot of free land waiting to be built on.

So, the answers are tricky - which of course is why nothing has been done about the problem so far. And, as ever, our social fractures and secular backwardness in infrastructure are big obstacles. People pay heavily to live in places where social problems are less serious; if we could deal with social problems, new areas of housing would become available. People could commute from empty to full parts of the country if we had decent infrastructure. But the measures required to achieve all this are expensive and politically difficult.

This is one of the many areas of British politics where policy change proves impossible - the Westminster model, despite its supposed concentration of power at the centre, actually contains myriad veto points on closer inspection.