Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Month: October, 2016

Land, Tax & Housing Supply in Scotland


The Scottish Government has its five-year target of 50,000 new social and affordable homes and is exploring ways that the sector might overcome bottlenecks and impediments to the required levels of new build. Not surprisingly, there has been a focus on the supply delivery system, planning, the development industry and the land market. Scotland has recently had an independent review of the planning system chaired by Crawford Beveridge and earlier inquiries by RICS Scotland  and by the Shelter Commission on Housing and Wellbeing. Now, as a sidebar to the recent proposed reforms of the council tax, it has been suggested that the Scottish Government would consult on the efficacy of a tax on vacant and derelict land, so as to incentivise the supply of housing land from those relatively untapped sources. This follows on the recent introduction of a similar levy on such land in Ireland.

This was the context for a roundtable discussion I attended Tuesday morning about the pros and cons of such a tax chaired by the minister and populated by stakeholders across the housing supply delivery system, professionals, policy, academics and practice. It followed the Chatham House Rule so I will simply reflect on themes expressed around the table.

The meeting was structured around three key questions: why can’t we deliver more housing supply; would a tax on vacant & derelict land help; what other policy instruments might help? There was a wide range of views on show both in terms of diagnosis and what needs to be done.

Regarding what prevents housing land supply coming forward more speedily, there was (unresolved) disagreement over whether or not speculative land banking played a part. Other culprits were identified as high levels of risk, infrastructure constraints, construction capacity questions, the reduction in SME builders since the crisis, the cost of decontamination many derelict sites relative to the funds available, and lack of access to sufficient affordable land – amongst several other issues. Underlying much of what was said was the continuing large discrepancy between the volume of housing land with consents in the housing land supply figures and the much lower number of what actually gets completed. How do we rectify this and what quantitative significance does vacant and derelict land play as part of this story?

Contemplating a tax on vacant and derelict land means having clear definitions of what it means to be derelict or vacant and targeting the tax appropriately. That is not easy. Assuming that it can be done the tax would have to overcome a series of standard hurdles: the tax should be cheap to set up and run, it should be simple, transparent and be credible as a fair burden. It should also minimise wider distortions or unintended consequences.  I argued that if these criteria could be met through careful design, the tax should also possess local discretion so that the nuances of locally heterogeneous markets could to an extent be addressed. Overall, a wide range of views were expressed about the feasibility and desirability of such a tax.

In the course of the discussion a number of important wider points were made. First, there is of course a major issue about dereliction in our town centres and working on creating residential demand and solutions for these properties could play an important role in the future of many urban areas across Scotland. Second, there was a sense in some quarters that derelict and vacant land was a part of the problem of land supply for housing but it should not be over-cooked against the wider questions of how we best deliver on new housing targets. One view was that there was essentially nothing that far wrong with the planning systems aims and goals but there was a too common failure to actually deliver the housing delivery public policy outcomes we desire – and we need a range of mechanisms to make that happen.

How might this be done? First, there was discussion of the prospect that planning permission might be taken away on a site if it is not used. This is often discussed but of course there are dangers here – the site may nonetheless be a viable site and its development will be delayed and, moreover, by taking consent away, the effective housing land supply is actually being reduced. Second, there was discussion of national and regional land development agencies that could overcome market failures by delivering serviced affordable land for housing. To that end I would also support local revolving land funds that could do the same once they are pump-primed with initial funding. Third, it was suggested that the state can borrow over much longer periods than the private sector and should do more to exploit this by playing a larger role as an investor in infrastructure versus the relatively short run requirements of market sector developers and that, furthermore, there was an appetite for this long term state investment debt from pension funds.

Finally, there was debate about whether the local state has the capacity and even the confidence to use its existing powers, notably CPO as a way of braking log jams, assembling land and moving sites forward. Several speakers stressed the opportunity to use compulsory sales of land which has the added advantage that it is far cheaper to do in terms of transaction costs than CPOs from the point of view of local government.

Plenty of those present brought specific experienced examples to the table to make their arguments. Only one academic brought detailed research evidence (it was not me). One takeaway point for me from the debate in public policymaking terms, therefore, was that the Scottish Government still has an exercise ahead of it to collect different forms of rigorous evidence as well as this distillation of key stakeholder views – before decisions are taken about the direction of, and specific instruments for, a policy aimed at successfully expanding housing land supply and completions.




Gimme (a ‘standard’) Shelter

Showing their undoubted media abilities, Shelter today launched a new study describing a model of a living home standard (LHS). The standard is based on 39 attributes of essential and more ‘tradable’ attributes of five dimensions of ‘home’ drawn from intensive research with the public carried out by Ipsos MORI. The hook was to show many homes in Britain fell below this new standard, an approach characterised as in the same spirit as the national living wage. The social, tv, radio and print media took to it hugely. So well done Shelter for getting the housing crisis and housing deficit to the top of the news agendas.

In this short post I want to review how they arrived at this new standard and reflect a bit on the national results that they hung their story around.

Ipsos MORI carried out nine months of investigative qualitative research with the public to uncover the five themes and 39 attributes deemed to make up the living home standard (regardless of tenure age or size). This was reminiscent of the approach taken by the Oxfam Humankind Wellbeing Index.The themes were based on: affordability, decent conditions, space, stability (i.e. security) and neighbourhood. Passing the standard required that it meet all of the essential conditions for each theme and a minimum number of the tradable ones for each theme.To take affordability as an example: the essential requirements were 1. Can meet the rent or mortgage payments on the home without regularly having to cut spending on household essentials like food or heating; and, 2. Not worried that rent or mortgage payments could rise to a level that would be difficult to pay. Tradable requirements for the affordability dimensions involved: 1. Can meet rent or mortgage payments on the home without regularly preventing participation in social activities; and 2. Can meet rent or mortgage payments on the home without regularly being prevented from putting enough money aside for unexpected events.

This sort of approach to affordability is refreshing in that it gets us away from the tyranny of specific ratios (cost to income ratios) and minimum values (residual incomes) but clearly does require household survey data. However, it would be incorrect to say that this type of approach is unassailably objective – it is not. Its attractiveness is that it has been robustly built up from the views of real people but of course even that has to some extent been conditioned by the design of the approach in the first place. More significantly, the quest for definitive objective measures is illusory and must require judgements about what is included and excluded, how threshold values are set and why, weighting (and how such weighting is approached) and the fundamental realisation that housing need, affordability and an overall LHS is and must be subjective and to an extent derived from judgment. However, that is not to say that this is anything but a comprehensive and well thought through approach. It is. We just need to recognise that while some forms of housing deficit are apparently objective and straightforward; others quickly become harder to pin down. We should welcome multi-dimensionality to thinking about housing problems but it bring challenges too.

A survey of just under 2000 adults, with results weighted to reflect the national (GB) population, was then undertaken to measure the extent to which the LHS was met and where it was not met. The analysis found that 43% of people live in homes that fail to meet at least one of these dimensions of LHS. Affordability was valued as one of the most important aspects of whether a home was acceptable but was the area that most failed on (followed by decent conditions). However, of all that failed only 1% failed in all five dimensions; the vast majority failed on one dimension or not more than two. The percentage failing the standard was negatively related to income i.e. lower income households were more likely to be in homes that failed the standard. A similar regressive gradient was found contrasting LHS with social grade. Third, fully 69% of private tenants failed the LHS and across age bands, the highest proportion failing (at 58%) were young aged 25-34.

This is more than a useful start and I particularly liked several things about the model – for instance, its multi-dimensionality and the concept of tradable relative to essential attributes. But it would be good to look at the LHS at different more local spatial scales so that it could articulate directly with complementary measures like official measures of housing need. Shelter have done a great job in getting their message out clearly and simply and doing so with such effectiveness. Housing needs to be up there near the top of the agenda because chronic problems rarely seem to inhabit the upper echelons of the news cycles for long. For all that, it is amazing how quickly fairly straightforward concepts and ideas get mauled and can confuse. Last night one of the BBC reporters struggled with the idea that 43% overall could fail the LHS but at the same time 69% of (private) tenants lived in homes that did not meet the standard.