Politicians are often keen to identify bold dramatic solutions to problems. More mundane remedies tend to get less attention. For instance, I have been intrigued by the evidence that taking Vitamin D pills halves the death rate from coronavirus. To respond that its “not a silver bullet” – more tests are needed to be sure it cuts the death rate that much, many people would still have died even if they had taken vitamin D pills, etc – misses the point. The probability is that it’s a highly cost-effective way to save lives which does not involve any further economic and social disruption or restriction on individual liberty. I think if I was a council leader I would use a big chunk of the Public Health budget to buy thousands of jars of the pills and send out some staff from the town hall to knock on doors handing over a jar to every pensioner in the borough.
Claudia Martinez gave us another good example in a piece for this site in February. She said that upgrding GPs surgeries would be more cost effective than building new hospitals – as over a third of patients who attend A&E do so for non-urgent, minor injuries. Sometimes they do so due to the difficulty in getting a GP appointment. But building shiny new hospitals gets more headlines – so that it the politically tempting option.
That same “think big” mentality results in missed opportunities for housing development. I have written before about the number of surplus garages owned by Councils. Around 100,000 are empty. But I would put the “surplus” figure as much higher as many others are not really needed for parking but are used for storage – often rented out privately to those who are not residents of the council estate concerned. Often it would be quite viable for these garages to be demolished and replaced with (attractive) rows of cottages. As the state owns the land the councils should be able to make a profit – even with a mix of social housing and new homes for sale on the open market. Some of the proceeds could be used to clear a backlog of repairs and carry out estate improvements to the benefit of existing residents. Garages on council estates are just an example – the scope for “infill development” on public sector sites is huge. But the snag is that it would only be huge in a cumulative sense: a dozen homes here, another half a dozen there. There isn’t the same ego trip for planners, architects, developers and politicians of a Brave New World multi million-pound scheme that they can point to as an important legacy – albeit a hideous one.
Thus we still have councils complaining about the housing shortage – behaving in a passive way, passing motions blaming central Government. Yet they ignore the opportunities they have to do something about it. So far as the garages are concerned, some councils don’t even keep proper records of what they own. For instance, Ealing Council informed me they own 1,401 garages but they don’t know how many are empty. When I asked a couple of years ago they told me they had 975 empty garages. Newham Council didn’t respond to me, though in 2017 they told Property Partner they had 1,119. Though Croydon Council didn’t reply this time, when I asked in 2019 they gave me a figure of 782 empty garages.
But I have managed to gather the following figures from councils in London – via Freedom of Information requests:
So that total comes to 18,083. If we had the figures from Ealing, Croydon, and Newham it would be likely to be over 20,000. In any case, it is an increase on the total identified last time of 15,875.
FOI doesn’t apply to housing associations, so we don’t know about Bromley, which transferred its stock to one. I suspect that there is equivalent wasted potential on the housing association estates dotted across the capital. Taxpayers subsidies should be conditional on them doing better.
The Mayor of London has significant responsibility for housing and has done nothing – with either incentives or penalties – to encourage the councils to act. Central Government has a responsibility too. Greater transparency requirements for local authorities and housing associations would help. But that would not go far enough. Rules need to be applied with a presumption for housing development where there is a row of empty garages. Also that when garages are vacated, priority is given to demolishing them to be replaced with housing – reletting as garages should only take place when housing on the site is not viable. There should also be a presumption that garages currently let out to non estate residents should instead be replaced with new homes.
Though this particular research exercise concerns London the same shameful phenomenon applies in the rest of of the country.
It is a great pity that councils and housing associations will not take the initiative to provide the new homes we need. However, given the housing shortage is so severe, the Government must force them to end this scandal. Bringing in some rigour to ensure proper asset management and increase the housing supply might not generate much excitement in the media. But it would give a lot more families the chance to get on the housing ladder.