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Policy report: housing

Everyone agrees that Britain needs more homes. But how should they be built and financed? And will there ever be enough?

Tom Clark Editor, ProspectBeyond bricks and mortar

For over a decade, the consensus on housing has been that Something Must Be Done. And in most of the rhetoric that something is to build more homes. It sounds simple, practical and—in the light of a rising population, skyhigh prices, and our chilling infographic on homelessness (p17)—compelling too. Why, then, hasn’t it worked so far?

In part, it is down to the great crash. In 2007, Gordon Brown vowed to make the building of more homes—and garden cities—his administration’s signature policy. But then the financial crisis hit, and construction went into freefall. Now—finally—as Kit Malthouse says below, housebuilding has bounced back to where it was before Lehman fell. On a longer view, the rebound looks less impressive. In the quarter century from the mid-1950s, the rate at which new dwellings were being completed exceeded the 2017-8 figure every year. By historical standards, even the “stretching” target for 300,000 homes annually doesn’t seem so bold: in the 1960s, the available estimates (which probably undercounted) hit 350,000 homes at one point.

The minister sees the stars of cheap credit, available land and political will aligning. But after a full 40 years of slow building, I’m not sure Britain will be able to build its housing market out of trouble any time soon—even if he hits his target. For Labour, Melanie Onn (overleaf) suggests complementing the drive to build more homes with various social objectives— curbs on private rents, a pivot towards more social homes, and even somehow capping mortgage costs with reference to local wages. It’s hard to see how that last idea could be made practical, at least without substantial resources which more council homes may also require.

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In Prospect’s March issue: Gaby Hinsliff explains why all sides of the Brexit debate feel like they’re losing. She says that the Brexit war has raged on for two and half years and disfigured British politics in the process, leaving Remainers in mourning and Leavers crying betrayal. Elsewhere in the issue: James Ball, Martin Moore and Barbara Speed examine how we should be less worried about the tech giants Facebook, Amazon and Google and more worried about the data they hold about us. Ball argues that breaking up these huge companies isn’t the answer; Moore asks what would happens when a tech giant wants to run a smart city, and Speed looks at the increasing trend of tracking everything in our daily lives from the amount of water we drink to how many notifications we receive to our smartphone. Also, Rachel Sylvester profiles Sajid Javid, the Cabinet minister positioning himself for the top job.