Things are very very bad
I think people would be shocked to see exactly how much poorer the UK is than the US.
Here's a fun story.
I work in a field associated with transport planning. Somebody wants to build a new housing development (about 100 houses or so) in a well-to-do town near a bigger and even wealthier city in the UK. I don't know the details, but somebody wealthy didn't want this development and they were able to appeal against the construction of this development on traffic grounds (I understand there have been multiple appeals already. Someone convicted of murder wouldn't have been allowed this many appeals). I was part of a team that worked on this guy's appeal, which involved multiple technical staff and lawyers some of whom were very senior. The other side would have employed the same. The cost of this process is astronomical. I don't know what has happened with the appeal but no doubt it is still stuck in planning hell.
Of course, there would have been (marginal) traffic impacts caused by this scheme. But any proper solution to traffic problems, like allowing more development in the bigger city that everyone would have driven to, or creating a high quality bus service, or building a bigger road, or anything at all, is laughable. The only way of mitigating the problem, according to the team I worked for, is to not build the new development. It's a joke.
As an aside, climate change is now a new stick for NIMBYs to beat any new development. Having a meadow near a tube station is crazy. But if you build houses on a meadow, the people that live there will use energy! And that's not consistent with the governments climate change strategy!
Thanks for the shout-out Matt! Completely agree with this analysis, - the case-by-case system England has is really really bad, and much worse than American zoning. Agree too on the connection to not just housing affordability (which is very poor in the UK) but also economic growth as well. It's really difficult to build a bigger economy when it's really difficult to build anything.
Just a quick correction - it's not necessarily the case that homes in the UK are becoming smaller, but rather that space per person for new households (i.e. renters) is falling because they're having to share a stock that isn't growing nearly as fast as population and incomes. Plus, the original chart is from Mayor of London's Housing Research Note 06: https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/housing-research-notes
For people who want to know a bit more:
As well as poor quantity, the UK also has really poor quality stock. There's an element especially for people who visit the UK that they see lovely period housing stock in Chelsea or affluent suburbs and imagine this is commonplace across the country, but it's really not. For instance, there's a massive and actually really upsetting ongoing scandal with social housing in Britain, with poor people living in terrible squalor because it's really difficult to both build more and to demolish housing stock that's at the end of its useful life: https://twitter.com/DanielHewittITV/status/1496431107381858304
In terms of how we fix this, Centre for Cities has a clear proposal - moving away from England's unpredictable planning system, where builders can follow the rules and still be denied permission to build, towards a new flexible zoning system, where if developers follow the rules they can always build, and with less strict zoning than a lot of US cities: https://www.centreforcities.org/publication/planning-for-the-future/
The Levelling Up Bill going through Parliament at the moment will help create a national set of rules that's a pre-requisite for further improvements, and is probably the most promising source of progress towards flexible zoning in the short-term: https://www.centreforcities.org/blog/the-levelling-up-bills-planning-proposals/
And there's a whole bunch of other problems to do with Britain's incredible centralisation that make it very difficult to get local government in England on board with economic growth and building more stuff. Fixing local government is probably a pre-requisite to properly fixing planning and housing in England: https://www.centreforcities.org/publication/centralisation-nation/
Thank you so, so much for this. The housing situation in this country is maddening and it really feels like there are huge forces stopping any improvements from being made.
One way in which I'm quietly optimistic is that the new housing and levelling up secretary, Simon Clarke, seems to be well-aware of the huge problems housing shortages create in the UK. He's previously advocated building lots of new houses around Green Belt train stations and is also a supporter of street votes. And it's possible, given that the Tories are becoming a rare breed in London anyway, they may decide they have little to lose by just massively liberalising planning in the capital. But I don't want to get my hopes up.
Matt, I sincerely appreciate your obsession with housing. I’m a firm believer in the “housing theory of everything,” and via my work at Strong Towns I am doing what I can to try and help.
For your audience, and America, I think it would be more helpful for you to spend less time writing “we have a housing problem.” We know this. Everyone who needs to know, knows.
Where we need your help and energy is finding a way through the politics that make this issue a nightmare. There are so many status quo interests benefiting from the housing crisis, and so far nobody has been able to come up with a message or policy prescriptions that can break through the wall of opposition.
I would love to see you, and all of us, spend our energy on *that.* What would it take, politically, to actually deliver a reasonable, predictable, by-right development environment?
Because as I see it now, roughly 2/3 of US voters (and I assume also a majority of the UK) are home owners, and that’s plenty large enough majority to force us all to suffer terrible collective consequences in defense of each individual homeowner’s status quo.
Your political pragmatism is what draws me to your writing. Unfortunately on this political issue I feel the pragmatic “popularist” position is to do nothing on housing, because it would take catastrophe on the order of the London Blitz to break the electorate’s death grip preference for the status quo.
Is there any possible rhetorical breakthrough that could change hearts and minds, or policy that’s somehow both effective yet so mild it can sneak through Secret Congress?
I live in a city with a green belt that is apparently the largest in the world though the city is not major. We also have a widely acknowledged housing crisis, but few suggest developing the green belt. It’s a failed policy - massive exurbs have sprung up beyond the belt - and yet no one wants to change it.
I think it’s just massive status quo bias and a common fallacy that the nature people observe is somehow more valuable than the nature they don’t see being destroyed outside the belt. Don’t get me wrong, some of it is used for recreation and I’d be happy to keep those parts, but the keeping the rest is nonsensical to me. Failed policies should be reversed!
I work with real estate investors in the UK and there’s genuinely profit to be made from buying vacant land, getting planning permission, then selling it on to someone else to actually build.
"my sense of the general tenor of the conversation is that the Tories have decided the previous dozen years’ worth of Tory governments have been too focused on fiscal responsibility and that the government should run a larger deficit"
Of course, sensible people were saying that running a bigger deficit was a good idea about 10 years ago. Inflation was low and there was plenty of slack in the economy. That is not the situation now. Of course, expecting any sound decision making from this shit-bucket government is madness.
I think this crisis is tearing up British society. Matt illustrated the housing crisis nicely. He didn't discuss that both leading parties mostly pretend the problem doesn't exist, because it's so toxic politically. Each election they both set ambitious targets for new homes which are then missed by huge margins, and there's very little discussion of why this keeps happening.
So there's a glaring crisis, but politicians' responses to it don't come close to addressing the problem. I think this is the fundamental backdrop to people voting for Brexit against elites' wishes, 3 Prime Ministers having to resign in 6 years, Scotland considering leaving the union, and a bit of a recovery in industrial action. The system isn't working and isn't honest, and it's incredibly corrosive.
While we’re colonizing the London Green Belt with mid rise apartments, let’s not forget how easy it would be to reclaim southern San Francisco Bay and flood that overpriced market with affordable housing. Omelettes are available for statesmen willing to break a few eggs.
On a related point (and Slow Boring favourite topic) the UK transit system is also badly broken.
There is substantial high-density re-development in London around key transport links (Battersea, Vauxhall, Stratford, etc) but there are large parts of South London which attract basically no re-development because they are transit dead-zones with no underground service.
Building out the underground should be a key priority but the work is painfully slow and ruinously expensive. For example the new Elizabeth (/Crossrail) line *partially* opened this year after a 13 year build and a £25b price tag. That comes out to roughly $300m USD per km, that's obviously much better than NYC but it seems to be 2x what it costs in Spain (https://pedestrianobservations.files.wordpress.com/2019/11/costspresentation2.pdf).
It is often faster and more reliable to live in a commuter town outside London than to live in South London.
The UK has shockingly bad housing quality for the money paid. Also the extreme centralization of everything in London means that its gravitational pull is hard to resist as far as economic measures go. The UK is a place where Heathrow expansion was a national parliament issue for decades.
"The idea of incurring some economic cost for the sake of preserving nature is perfectly reasonable. But one really ought to think this through. The economic burden of preserving an acre of meadow immediately adjacent to a London metro station is astronomical, and if you developed it instead, you could preserve many, many acres of less valuable land elsewhere."
Isn't part of the value of nature preservation in this context precisely that it's actually near where people are and can experience it, as opposed to where it's providing much less utility to nearby humans?
Furthermore, path-dependence would seem to dictate that nature preservation in areas that may experience high housing demand in the future has to be done ex ante, when it's feasible, as opposed to ex post, when it's impossible (no one is going to demolish a bunch of high rises to build a park), particularly because parks generally don't generate much if any revenue.
I understand the argument being made in the quoted paragraph, but I think it also puts the onus on pro-housing urbanists to explain why would be improper to preserve open land what appears to be an extremely non-dense area, but it wouldn't be improper not to pave over Central Park and replace it with skyscrapers, given that that land may have among the highest opportunity costs of non-intensive use in the country. As a native New Yorker, surely Matt is aware that "[several] acres of meadow immediately adjacent to a  metro station" describes every subway stop from from 110th St to 59th St along Central Park West and East.
Just to give a personal anecdote, my 90sqm two-bedroom flat in Manchester (in what we'd call an inner suburb; I think that implies something further out in American English; it's about 20-30 minutes' walk to the city centre) cost me £112,000 in 2010. It is now valued at about £170,000.
2010 prices were still held down after the financial crisis - my flat was £94,495 list from new in 2004; looking at the history, one of the neighbouring identical flats was about £125,000 in 2008.
Manchester is well outside the London commuter zone, though is one of the most successful cities outside of London.
The analysis of the Blitz on productivity immediately made me think of post-WWII Japan. Does anyone know of any similar analysis for cities like Tokyo? Is part of what allowed Japan to generate some of the densest cities in the world related to the destruction of large parts of their urban centers and/or do they just have better policies in place to allow density to happen naturally?
I definitely recall, when working briefly for a UK firm a while back, that our office manager told me that she was commuting to London from York, about 2 hours by tolerably fast train to the north