Increasing the housing supply must be an important priority. I was pleased that Dominic Raab highlighted the sale of Government owned land as a key way to achieve this. State land banking exists on a huge scale. Releasing it could not only provide new homes, but repay some of the National Debt. Kit Malthouse, Raab’s rival and successor as Housing Minister, has put emphasis on the need for the new homes to be beautiful. It is possible for something to be newly built but also traditional. Liz Truss isn’t standing, but her emphasis on liberalising the planning system (including on the Green Belt) is the really the third fundamental requirement. In many ways, it is important for these points to go together for the massive construction required to be popular with existing communities. A presumption to allow development would be acceptable if there was confidence that it would be attractive. If some scuzzy bit of derelict public sector land is used, then some of the proceeds from the sale could be earmarked for improvements in the local infrastructure. Thus resistance would soften further. After nine wasted years, it really is time for the Conservatives to show they can deliver.
I have written before about just one example of the missed opportunities. There are thousands of empty municipal garages in London. Two years ago, Property Partner, a property investment company, used FOI requests to discover that there were at least 22,000 empty or derelict lock-up garages out by councils in London. Looking at the square feet, they calculated that if they were redeveloped, that could provide over 16,000 homes. That was a conservative estimate, as it assumed only bungalows would be possible.
This scandalous waste of resources persists. From recent FOI requests to councils in London about how many empty garages they own, the replies I have had include the following:
So of the 21 London boroughs that responded with figures, ten councils were up on last time – if we include those that didn’t reply last time and so has a nil return. 11 were down on last time. The identified total comes to 15,875. But I got fewer responses than Property Partner managed two years ago, when their tally came to 22,000. I suspect the true total probably has fallen a bit, but that it remains scandalously high.
The potential is greater. Let us take Southwark Council. They wouldn’t tell me how many empty garages they have. But in 2017 they told Property Partner they had 1,891. They also had 4,733 that were rented. Over 500 of those were rented out to people who were not council tenants or leaseholders. Looking at their charges, they pay £34.50 a week. A useful sum for the Council’s coffers, but it would make much more sense to replace them with homes. More controversial would be reducing the number available to council tenants and leaseholders – they currently pay £20.70 a week. However, I think that would be aimed at given the seriousness of the housing situation. Is it really justified for people to be in temporary or overcrowded accommodation so that others are provided with a subsidised garage? Gradually increasing the garage charges and not reletting the garages when they are vacated would be a reasonable way to provide more sites for construction – where it would be viable.
After all, some councils already charge more. In Hammersmith and Fulham, where I used to be a councillor, it costs a council tenant £23.08 a week for a garage. For other residents in the borough, renting a council garage costs £35 a week. For those who live outside the borough, it is £50 a week.
Also, how many unused parking spaces are there on council estates besides from the garages?
Then, of course, there are all those tenant halls that are left empty from one year to the next. Or grim stretches of concrete wasteland not currently used for anything very much. You don’t need expertise as a property developer walking through you local council estate to spot places for “hidden homes”. The new homes could be rows of attractive cottages. The building project could be self financing – with a mix of private and social housing. Or it could be entirely private housing and thus provide useful proceeds for the council – which could be used to help clear a backlog of repairs.
The difficulty is not making the case that garages left empty are a wasted resource. That is hard to refute. It is a matter of the political will needed to transform such sites into the much needed new housing. In both local and central government, the failure to take such opportunities is utterly woeful.