Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Month: January, 2015

The Many Forms and Consequences of Devolution

I have just returned from a two day conference organised by Policy Scotland and the Urban and Regional Economics Seminar Group. The meeting took place at the Open University in Edinburgh. The title of the meeting was: devolution and federalism in a post-referendum United Kingdom. The timing was interesting, the event starting on the very day that the Smith Commission Cmmd Paper was published by the UK Government.

There were eight papers during the event. They can be grouped in the following way. Jim Gallagher presented a paper about where are now, setting the UK and Scotland as being half way between the rock of the referendum and the hard place of the forthcoming UK general election. Later on the first day Gerry Mooney from the Open University looked at the independence referendum and the Smith commission debates in terms of the centrality of social welfare policy.

David Bell and David Heald both separately talked about finances, devolution and the Smith Commission and the long-term fiscal arrangements for Scotland in the continuing quasi-federal state of the UK.

I gave a paper on the emerging independent Scottish review of the council tax and the options that might arise as a result of it. Elsewhere David Bailey from Aston University talked about the English questions relating to transforming LEPs into something more regional and developmental. Zach Wilcox from Centre for Cities talked about new ideas around reconfiguring local authority boundaries, sharing powers and making further governance changes to local government in England. Finally David Waite from Cardiff University looked at City Deals in Scotland and Wales and their future opportunities and constraints.

This was an interesting and lively series of papers with useful discussion and many nuggets of thought-provoking ideas coming out of the sessions. What were the main points that I took from the conference?

First, ambiguity and uncertainty surrounds both the Vow and still very rapid Smith Commission process. For example, was the defence of Barnett in relation to it as a resource allocation mechanism or should it be viewed as a symbol concerned with retaining the per capita spending advantage enjoyed by Scotland?

Second, Smith means that 60% of Scottish identifiable spending and 40% of revenues will be devolved. This is highly decentralised by international standards, so Scotland is going to be a highly federal sub-national system. However in two respects one might describe this form a UK perspective as quasi federalism. First of all, England remains asymmetrically dominant across the UK as a whole (84% of UK population and highly centralised). Second, many of the taxes are assigned revenues or in other ways Scotland does not have full control over them in term of key elements like the personal allowance for income tax.

Third, the critical element of the block grant adjustment means that Scottish government revenues and the tax base have to grow relativel to the UK taxpayers otherwise the block grant will actually shrink over time. There are incentives here but there are also risks.

Finally, the seminar discussed local and regional dimensions of devolution across the UK in different ways. To what extent is it possible to consider changing to a more shared services or common platforms for local governments? Second, is it possible to imagine a more coherent and consistent set of city deal arrangements in future? Third, is it possible to design a ‘missing space’ between local and national governance within which to promote regional local economic development? And, finally, can we conceive of the council tax freeze being removed and a more coherent version of the property tax being put in place? We will wait and see.

Remembering Miller

I was sad to learn today that Miller the cat is no longer with us. This cat was not only well known to thousands of staff and students past and present at Glasgow University, he was a fixture of the place for many years. His fame has stretched so far that there is even a story of his passing in the Glasgow Herald today and on other news websites [1].

I always thought he lived quietly in Hillhead street in the residential area near the middle of the campus. Apparently he was known to frequent the main gatehouse of the Gilbert Scott building too but we knew him best in terms of his many forays into the Adam Smith Building and to Urban Studies in Bute Gardens.

In fact, he did rather well for many years via secretaries who fed him and kept him warm in inclement weather. You would often see him climbing the Adam Smith Building stairs heading to one of his sanctuaries along a teaching corridor (I seem to recall the urban studies journal office was for a long time a favourite destination) Miller had a facebook page for many years (I think called something like ‘the Adam Smith building cat’).

The Herald story said that he was 18 though it feels like he has been around much longer than that. The last time I saw him was a month or two ago and, to put it mildly, he was not exactly in playful mood. More to the point, in the midst of the University building a new smart campus over the next few years, the cry is now going up to name one the new buildings after this splendid cat. Quite right, too.

Note (includes photos):

http://www.deadlinenews.co.uk/2015/01/22/top-university-may-name-building-after-cat/

 

 

‘We are all risk managers’: developing resilience in social housing

The social housing sector in Scotland confronts a wide array of external and internal risks, as well as the need to respond to and work with multiple stakeholders like their tenants, government, the regulator and lenders. Providers operate risk-based management practices to help them assess and mitigate these risks. At the same time, many providers are looking to a series of resilience-building processes and strategies that will support and strengthen them in the uncertain years to come.

Alongside these pressures, there is an ever-growing requirement that social housing fits within and plays a full role in what is increasingly known as the emerging Scottish approach to public policy. This is grounded in the Christie Commission principles of partnership, prevention, service integration, co-production, asset-based and efficient service delivery solutions. The local articulation of these approaches to delivery can be found in community planning partnerships, increasingly viewed as the mechanism by which place-based holistic policies should be delivered. Housing should (but does not always) play a major role in this emerging policy landscape.

Working with colleagues in Policy Scotland, we launched today a report funded by the Wheatley Group [1]. This was an exploration of the challenges facing the Scottish social housing sector, the external risks they face and the ways in which organisations are trying to embed resilience both in terms of individuals and as organisations. The study involved an evidence review, key actor consultations and four case studies carried out during the course of the second half of 2014. This post summarises key messages and draws on the summary of the report.

What are the major risks?

  • Political uncertainty.
  • On-going austerity and, specifically, reduced housing subsidy.
  • Housing supply shortages, unmet housing need and affordability problems.
  • Long term adverse changes to private finance.
  • Welfare Reform, despite the Smith Commission’s proposed approach in Scotland.
  • The growth of private renting may create both competitive threats and business opportunities.
  • Demographic trends, for instance, ageing and increased single households will shift demand and need, will require provider response and create new opportunities.
  • Labour market trends such as in-work poverty, the irregularity of many new jobs and wider trends in poverty and inequality need to be understood by front-line and integrated service delivery providers.
  • Internally-generated risks are also important and represent the past decisions, responsibilities, governance, human and other resources available, as well as the underlying outlook of providers. These path dependencies constrain providers but they also reflect their mission and outlook. They may well also bring risks.

What are the key messages from the research?

There is no simple answer as to whether the sector should reduce risk by diversifying or by returning to the core business – It is context-specific. While no combination is necessarily better than the other, individual providers will locate where they think best and most appropriate to them – but they must to do so in a strategic and informed manner.

Providers must continue to improve and invest in customer intelligence. The research found that this had not previously been a strength of the sector. While the situation had improved, due in part to welfare and other reforms, this progress must continue. Relatedly, front-line services including support services and broader issues, such as expertise in household management and financial inclusion, are likely to become more central and less peripheral in the future.

There were varied examples of partnership working. This primarily focused on customers and particularly linked to wider issues (e.g. health and social care integration). One theme was that partnerships are not just necessary for operational service reasons – developing and delivering services through partnerships is not just desirable but a necessary strategic approach for resilient housing organisations.

Providers should embrace and seek to embed the notion of the learning organisation. There are good business reasons for doing this but we also noted the importance of drawing on new ideas like scarcity of mental capacity both among impoverished customers and hard-working staff [see earlier post on scarcity and behavioural economics]. Ensuring that appropriate holistic training is deployed will make the best use of the sense found in the research that ‘we are all risk managers’. Learning is also part and parcel of good governance.

There will be significant new business development opportunities, not least as a result of demographic change and the care sector’s relentless growth. There is scope to build on the idea of whole life housing provision and flexible care solutions directly provided and in partnership with others. This opportunity, however, also brings risks and new stakeholders as well.

We suggest that three steps should be followed-up as a result of this research. First, good practice regarding risk management and resilience need to be further consolidated. Second, where do specific providers want to be – are they matching their strategic vision to their operational capacities, resilience thinking and sufficient awareness of the risks they face? Whatever the direction they resolve to follow, it should be grounded in a full evidenced analysis and wide consultation. Finally, the sector as a whole should undoubtedly debate the strategic direction of the sector in terms of just what (or who) is social housing for in the 21st century?

Note: A full report ‘Reform, Resilience and Risk: Social Housing in Scotland’ by Kenneth Gibb, Des McNulty and Tony McLaughlin is available from both Policy Scotland at the University of Glasgow [http://policyscotland.gla.ac.uk] and from the Wheatley Group. [http://www.wheatley-group.com].

The Return of the Rentier?

I read Will Self’s thought-provoking piece on housing in the FT at the weekend (A rentier nation’s fading dreams of home). Home ownership has peaked and is now at a 25 year low; while, at the same time, this has been redistributed into the quickly growing buy to let rental market and hence the new rentiers of the title. Self argues that the visible growth in new rental apartments, the normality of renting in the market (he describes the experience of his son in Hoxton, London), and the importance of the recycling for former council homes into the rental market – are symbols of the fading of the nation of home owners and the new rentier Britain.

This comment piece is a vivid polemic, colourfully described in terms of images of Pooterism and Dickens’ character Wemmick – the latter had a suburban home that was indeed a (mock) castle. It is anecdotal rather than scientific but that is fair enough for a piece setting out to challenge the reader. While the comment piece was a little metrocentric, Self does cover a broad canvas and in particular seeks to make the case that we may have passed a tipping point of sorts that is moving the UK away from its long term relationship with home ownership. I am not convinced but it is an argument worth exploring.

Critically, Will Self argues that: ‘The idea that we can make a smooth transition from a society in which the homeowner is seen as the metaphoric as well as the literal pillar of the community to one in which everyone rents presupposes we are happy to regard our homes as not only non-fungible but not even transferable; which in turn implies a shift in a range of other cultural values. And I believe cultural values, rather than the mechanical drivers of economic theory, are the operative factors here.’ Add a ‘Discuss’ to the end of that great quote and you have a pretty mean essay question.

How would I answer such a question?

There is a sense that a large number of households have become used to not owning (who might previously have done so) – but do not own fundamentally because it is ruled out financially. They cannot afford to own if they want to live in a given high cost area. That is not the same as a culture shift to renting across society. While it is clearly something important for a growing generation of people, where it applies, it is still largely the outcome of a decision driven by constraints, not preferences. But I do not deny the importance of the growing group of non-owners (and new landlords). The media, the political class and, I believe, the great majority of households still undoubtedly hold home ownership up but are currently in a form of cognitive dissonance in that they want to promote owner-occupation but at least in part or implicitly recognise the deeply dysfunctional nature of the housing policy, tax policy and unaffordable prices that underpin it.

What about the new rentiers? Private renting in the UK as in many countries relies on many small-scale landlords, many of whom are amateurs. Few countries have successfully shifted the sector into large scale institutionally-funded corporate landlords (though that does not mean it might not yet happen because of market forces, complementary policies and relative rates of return moving in such a way as to make it more attractive). Until this does happen, however, there will be a preponderance of small buy to let landlords, some of whom are reluctant landlords but many are established and probably in for the long haul.

And yet, even as recently as the 1960s, the private renting sector in the UK was truly large (more than a quarter of all homes) and made up of many thousands of small scale landlords. What we see emerging today is less a new phenomenon and more the return of something actually both familiar and numerous in British society. However, the sector now is still smaller than it was even in the 1960s and the balance of probabilities suggest to me that from here on the main inroads will be from corporate landlords as the sector continues to grow and normalise into the future.

Will Self rightly points to the unintended consequences of the Right to Buy, in particular, the recycling of many of these properties into the rental market (something my colleague Nigel Sprigings has done much good work on in recent years). I find the interesting thing about this, and was also struck by it when reading the FT editorial on housing the other day, that the Thatcher project wanted to create an entrepreneurial Britain by facilitating property owners and also by encouraging share ownership. While there was a cumulative, major redistribution of wealth through the right to buy but mainly through rising real house prices, the share ownership growth was in safe privatized public utilities, largely quickly sold on for a profit – hardly an entrepreneurial rebirth. But in the future rental market growth may be in the form of corporate landlords who will often be public companies, such as REITs – and many individuals may become indirect investors in rental property though share ownership rather than traditional rentier landlords. More radically, perhaps more investors in the future will seek to hold housing assets in the form of bonds rather than actually letting property directly.

Are cultural forces more important here than economic drivers; are preferences more significant than constraints? To paraphrase Ben Goldacre, I think it is a little more complicated than that. But it is not just economic determinism (the role of constraints shaping housing choices in an increasingly unaffordable and credit limited housing market). The changes in the housing market are uneven, cumulative and context-specific. They reflect the complex interplay of choices consisting of both our preferences (wherever they come from) but also our constraints in terms of incomes, prices and our liquidity.

I argued in an earlier post that long term international evidence, including the UK, is suggestive that long term real house price trends are worsening, and may be doing so at an increasing rate. So, by dint of ever-worsening affordability, home ownership may have passed its peak and rental markets may have to grow to accommodate new and moving households. But this does not necessarily imply rentier-led, poor quality expensive insecure private renting for the masses. A groundswell of opposition means that high rents and short tenancies are becoming as politically unacceptable as bad landlords and poor conditions have long been. There is a legislative process underway in Scotland consulting over balanced regulation. I am the last person to call for first generation hard rent controls but the politics of the Housing Benefit cost of low income private tenants and unreasonably short tenancies do seem to offer a window for trading off rent increases with longer tenancies given reasonable landlord rights over eviction. Tying this to better quality standards of accommodation need not frighten away investors – but it needs to be carefully thought through and incentivised.

Perhaps a further question arising from the Will Self comment piece is what a large scale market rental sector would mean for the UK, in terms of its policy requirements, its impact on labour markets, cities and neighbourhoods? How would the (mainly local) state seek to manage and regulate it? How would it change attitudes to savings and investments if we are no longer funnelling everything into chiefly second hand homes to own?

Order and the British Housing Market

Yesterday’s FT ran a lengthy editorial on the woes of the UK housing market (‘Britain needs to set its housing market in order’), following earlier analysis on the same subject. The discussion leads onto other linked analysis yesterday by the BBC News on house building [1] and a blog by Gavin Smart of the CIH on private renting [2].

The FT argument runs something like this. Rising house prices, despite the great recession, have pushed stock housing values to nearly a trillion pounds, much of this accruing to existing owners or landlords, at the expense of tenants and would be buyers. And ‘there is nothing illusory about the divisions this creates’. They do not lay the blame at faulty monetary policy regarding interest rates or indeed wish to overstate the role of oligarchs holding their savings in the form of London homes; instead the problem is lack of housing supply and fiscal policy that provides tax breaks to private landlords, the absence of capital gains taxation and Housing Benefit maintaining rents in the private rental market. They are critical also of Help to Buy and Funding for Lending (the latter described as a ‘vast credit subsidy’ for buy to let landlords). Guarantees for housing construction on the other hand have remained ‘in the pipeline’. The FT argues that policy has been more successful relaxing the planning system but that political will is receding with economic recovery and as the election nears. So, both the priorities for housing and the lasting commitment to see it through have been lacking.

Looking forward, the editorial argues that (1) HM Treasury should scrutinise all forms of support (including one presumes implicit tax breaks) to home owners; (2) local government should be free to set property taxes; (3) the planning system has to favour those in housing need and seeking new homes rather than the ‘comfortable homeowners’. They conclude: ‘What Britain needs is a government brave enough to trumpet the virtue of falling house prices, and to make it happen’.

The BBC News magazine story by Tom de Castella asks why it is so difficult to achieve the Labour party’s 240,000 UK housing supply figure. Along with Government proposals to help, the main supply suspects, largely based on the Lyons Review analysis, are set out in summary. The planning system and local opposition to development; lack of available land; the slow build out of land held by builders with planning permission, the fact that the state no longer builds to scale and social housing is financially constrained in different ways, supply capacity shortages in terms of labour and materials and the decline of small builders.

Turning to the private rented sector, Gavin Smart presents an array of surprising numbers. He quotes the recent Savills figure that private landlords have enjoyed an increase in capital values of £177 billion in the last five years during a period when the rental market stock grew by 57% in the UK (2009-14) and as noted by the FT private tenants pay 2/5 of their income on their housing, yet one in three rental market homes would have failed the English decent homes standard if applied to them in 2012. The issue of the moment seems however to be the fiscal one. Private landlords receive of the order of £7 billion per annum in tax allowances (manly mortgage interest tax relief and allowances for repairs and maintenance). Gavin notes the current debate regarding whether these should be halted or moderated and argues instead that they ought to be targeted more effectively incentivising landlords to sign up to accreditation, carry out repairs and improve management in return for the tax breaks.

My thoughts? First, as I have written before I would on balance favour a long term target of stable real house prices but to pursue that in a context of a concerted long term uplift in housing supply, fairer and more efficient housing taxation, more lending intervention and support, probably along the lines suggested by CIH, for a higher quality private rented sector (and by setting these ground rules, this may also hasten rather than further impede more institutional investment).

Second, I am a little wary of tax tinkering and second best solutions. Yes, there may be significant tax allowances going to the rental market but Gavin is right to stress the open-ended nature of the repair and maintenance allowances – these do need to be incentivised and linked to standards. The loan interest tax relief on the other hand is after all an offset for businesses that pay income and capital gains tax (unlike those other ‘asset speculators’, our nation of home owners). The problem at one level has been the previous fiddling with housing taxation (going back to the 1960s) that has broken what was once a relatively consistent treatment – taxing the housing income of home owners and offsetting with mortgage interest tax relief alongside a local property tax. Schedule A income tax was abolished followed later by the Rates and mortgage interest tax relief, without anything comprehensive taking their place. And viewed as an asset, owner-occupation of a main residence remains very lightly taxed with all the bad things that flow from it for the economy and society.

That is where the main inconsistency primarily lies in this second best world, not with the business taxation of private landlords. But I am the first to recognise how difficult it is to buy an argument of taxation principle in an ongoing context of austerity, welfare reform and housing market failure.

Notes:
[1] ‘Why can’t the UK build 240,000 homes a year’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30776306
[2] ‘A chance to boost standards in the private rented sector’ http://www.cih.org/news-article/display

Helping the SME builder through Help to Buy

A recurring theme in housing supply debates around the UK in recent times has been the need to shift the preponderance of new housing supply from the large volume house builders towards small and medium-sized builders. This was one of the features of the Lyons Review [1] and has been taken up enthusiastically by Labour.

What is the diagnosis of the problem? Lyons identifies the long term collapse of the SME builder in England: in the 1980s there were 10,000 smaller builders developing 57% of output; today there are just 2,800 producing only 27% of output (the definition of SME here is an annual output below 500 units). The Lyons Review argues that not enough land is coming forward for housing in part because of the incentives to trade land and since the business model of larger builders is premised on limiting the rate at which sites are built out. Moreover, the process of merger among the larger builders has not led to more output but rather an increased phasing effect in existing sites. At the same time as the economy recovers there is less small firm capacity to take on smaller sites.

Lyons argues (chapter 7 of the review report) that the SME sector is crucial to capacity but most adversely affected by financial constraints, lumpy cash flows and lack of access to decent sites. But they are more flexible (agile – according to Lyons), and can draw on local knowledge and innovation (a similar argument is made for local social housing providers). The Lyons Review argues that intervention to support smaller builders will continue to be required because the evidence suggests a secular trend over 25 years increasing constraints and inhibiting the small house builder. They point to three sets of costs falling heavily on the SME builder: the disproportionate burden on smaller companies of professional fees within the planning system, access to and the cost of finance; and, the impact on costs of rising building standards.

While Lyons seeks to encourage volume builders to do much more through planning reforms, new institutional support and partnerships (not the subject of this post), they also seek to implement a package of reforms specifically to support SME builders and overcome the long term challenges alluded to above. They want to reduce the risk and the cost of acquiring small sites and also propose government guarantees to enable smaller firms to access finance. The smaller builder would also be supported by other policy trends supported by Lyons such as self—build and community-led building projects. Proposals to fund infrastructure and redistribute planning gain may also, counter-intuitively, help provide buildable sites.

So why now bring up this debate about the decline of the SME builder and the proposals some are making to seek to counteract it in order to build capacity and fill in gaps where volume builders would not address? The main reason is an announcement today (12 January 2015) from the Scottish Government that they intend to target the 2015-16 tranche of Help to Buy funding to support new build homes constructed by smaller scale developers. They argue that a further £30million will help 750 home-owners on new homes priced up to £250,000. Apparently, there are 170 smaller builders already registered to the scheme but as yet had not been achieving the proportion of sales expected. The First Minister, in making the announcement, linked the SME targeting to supporting housing in remote locations and jobs and economic development in rural Scotland. The Help to Buy model involves an equity stake of 10-20% of the property but unlike England (as the press release makes clear) there are no interest charges on the equity as is the case in England, after 6 years, and the sales price is capped at £250,000.

While it is not a huge amount of funding, at a remote or rural scale it may prove to be quite valuable – if linked to local market failure, shortages, community sustainability or unaffordability. But it is not clear that the policy will be so targeted. It is also of course not necessarily the case that many of these small builders might not operate in cities, larger towns and the urban central belt more generally. Logically, there will be more smaller sites where there is more density.

So such a policy may make a modest aggregate contribution but be quite important locally if it does manage to filter through to the kinds of rural areas crying out for new supply. One might say that this is the more acceptable face of help to buy: moderately targeted [2] and an equity share model based on new build housing (and by smaller builders) rather than an indiscriminant high ceiling guarantee scheme for all housing, old and new.

Note:
1. The Lyons Housing Review (2014) Mobilising across the nation to build the homes our children need.
http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/uploads/editor/files/The_Lyons_Housing_Review_2.pdf

2. Note that the Scottish scheme is targeted only at those who could not access a larger mortgage. The web guidance says: ‘the scheme is only available to those who are unable to afford to purchase the property without the Government purchasing an equity share in the property, i.e. if you are able to afford over 90% of the purchase price through a combination of available mortgage and deposit, your application is likely to fall’.
http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Built-Environment/Housing/BuyingSelling/help-to-buy

Housing, the long term and the 2015 UK election

I suspect this will not be my last word on the UK General Election in May 2015. Different sectional interests will make their cases for inclusion in manifestos and government programmes that will divert resources into their chosen area. Sometimes they will provide evidence of the benefits of so doing, and of the costs of not doing so. I doubt however that many will give time over in their prospectuses to who should lose out as a result of their additional funding, or conduct an opportunity cost assessment of having less to spend in other areas.

The political parties are increasingly good at identifying marginal savings, additional tax revenue or indeed clever devices to fund chosen priorities – but leaving the existing trajectory of spending and revenues otherwise maintained. These approaches tend to be finite in terms of their time horizon and accede to the inherited fiscal position associated with the previous government. One thing I can guarantee is that, in the context of this incumbency bias about programmes, party manifestos will be modest in terms of the additional priorities they offer relative to the size of the overall cake.

The austerity narrative, the opposition fear of scaring the horses and the inability to propose and implement strategic long term policies that can actually make a difference (because many of our social and economic problems are stubborn and complex and need careful long term responses) – serve to constrain the kind of debate we will have. And the advent of right of centre populism and the distinctive Scottish dimension make it all the more murky in terms of outcomes and implications after the election.

So, in this uncertain election context, sectional interests (in the best sense of the word) will pitch up to persuade about inclusion in manifestos, try to influence debates and ultimately shape government policy direction. The housing lobby, policy and practice will be and already are involved in this process. More positively, this is a time when the different parts of the sector come together to generate, develop and revise good ideas from behind a combined front. And we all know that there are strong arguments and wider social and economic benefits for greater investment in housing. In a world of seemingly scarce public resources stretching long into the future, it should be perfectly possible to place the housing case quite high in the hierarchy social policy ‘claims’.

And yet…. Other areas have done better at making a preventative case rather than a symptomatic case for extra spending (even if the jury is often still out on the actual savings generated by preventative spending in areas like health care). I think there is a strong case to study what prevention spending and policy look like for housing (I hope to work on this in a small way in the coming year). Also, the case made for more integration and partnership across policy areas is readily made when we consider spatial or place-based policies – isn’t housing an obvious candidate to lead and share financial and human resources to achieve whole place policies?

As I have written before, the long term nature of the housing problem requires long term solutions, policies that stretch over more than one parliament. Tory and Labour Governments did it with mortgage interest tax relief. New Labour tried it with rent restructuring. The Scottish Executive achieved it with homelessness reform. But these are rare exceptions to the rule. Housing remains an exceptionally good candidate to be a political football – a large capital budget item that is typically front of the queue for spending cuts and often receives programme injections that last less than a Parliament and certainly do not make the long term consistent commitment that is required to step change, for instance, housing supply. This is not to say of course that policy innovations are not in some cases welcome, if designed and implemented properly; it is just that too often they are not allowed to evolve and be sustained. While there is no necessary reason for government not to make better housing policy in the future – the current political situation and our institutional structures seem to predispose us to short termism and frequent costly policy reversal.

What to do? First, we need to be clear about what we think the problem is and what we therefore want to achieve? If our focus is on housing supply we quickly get into target-setting, available resources and alternative mechanisms to achieve the proposed growth in supply. As the Barker Review recognised in those halcyon pre-2008 days, what is required is a permanent uplift in housing supply, a long term increase in the elasticity of housing supply and within it a long term programme injection of sustained levels of non market housing supply. However, in the absence of a radical reversal in public funding for social housing supply, relaxing difficult funding and market conditions, or easing planning constraints and local political resistance to development – we should recognise this just may not be possible to deliver.

Instead, might it not be better to pursue a series of policies, capable of building long term consensus, that seeks to make real progress towards critical enduring policies? This will be much less exciting than eye-catching initiatives and funding packages but might actually make a real difference. I am thinking in particular of pursuing underlying housing market stability through using housing taxation like asset taxes more creatively, mortgage lending regulation to manage mortgage credit, support for small and medium sized builders, reform of council tax and investigating more market friendly sensitive indicators to support local housing development.

Kate Barker’s recent book ‘Housing: what’s the plan?’ builds on several of these ideas. But it seems to me that we need to create a big tent consensus, building a programme of complementary policies that seek to inter alia stabilise real house prices, support more housing supply, promote more non-market housing and high quality market rental housing as well. This would seek to build a commitment to a programme over two parliaments and ring-fence an affordable level of public funds incentivised by careful monitoring and accountability (with the threat of resource withdrawal in the light of non-delivery).

Is it a non-starter to try to construct consensual policymaking in such a contested area? Perhaps: but it is preferable to yet more rounds of housing policy failure, inadequate and short term measures that will subsequently probably be reversed. We know it can be done. It has been done. People need to be persuaded of the importance of putting in place the tools with which over time to normalise the housing system and make the UK housing market both much less exciting and less damaging.

I have said much of this before (and will probably do so again). Let me reiterate that we should of course support win-win policies regardless. But the principal distinctive feature would be to set in train a process that makes housing a national priority precisely because it is such a wicked problem, a priority that requires a long term policy concordat that emerges from an all party, all expert programme of work aimed at setting a course that will in time increase supply, improve affordability (and be affordable) and reduce market volatility. And this might get us (a little) beyond the incumbency bias problem mentioned earlier and the zero sum game battle over scarce public resources. It might also make for better policy and more progressive outcomes.