London housebuilding – a statistical story of gentle decline

London housebuilding – a statistical story of gentle decline

Among the more durable truths of modern London life is that the gap between housebuilding targets set and homes actually built will be perennially cavernous: studious assessments of housing need are conducted, city-wide goals are set, and the number of new dwellings whose construction is completed then falls a long way short of it.

There are numerous reasons for this, the most obvious of which is that the targets – never mind that they are informed by careful measurements of population, demand and availability of land – are rendered unfeasibly high and largely academic by the many obstacles to homes in sufficient numbers actually rising from the ground.

Such obstacles are various, ranging from national and international market forces, to housebuilders constraining supply of homes for sale (rather than rent) in order to prop up prices, to shortages of skilled labour, to the timing of the submission of the figures, to transport infrastructure not being completed on time. Arguments about such matters rage. Whatever the rights and wrongs, London’s supply of homes, let alone of the right types, continues to lag far behind what it needs to be. All that changes is the scale of the shortfall.

Last month, the Office for National Statistics published its latest set of UK housebuilding statistics, covering the months of July to September 2019. Those for London are that work started on 3,880 dwellings of all shapes, types and size in the capital during those three months while 5,840 were completed. What do those numbers mean?

As ever, it firstly depends on what period you choose to compare them with. The figures for “starts” was a lot higher than for the previous quarter (2,520) and higher than the one before (3,120) but a lot lower than for the one before that (October-December 2018, 4,690). It was, however, up a bit year-on-year (170 starts more than for July-September 2018).

That completions figure, though, of 5,840 for the most recent quarter, compared with 5,940 for the previous one, 4,590 for the one before that, and 5,590 for Oct-Dec 2018. The year-on-year completions figure was a lot higher too, with 4,450 in July-September 2018 – 1,390 more homes.

So, both starts and completions were up year on year, but the latter by much more and the numbers for completions were much higher too. The comparison will not be perfect, but the difference does not seem to bode well for future numbers of completions.

Another way to look at the recent starts and completions figures is to compare those for the whole of the most recent 12 months that are available with preceding 12-month periods. Here’s what you get:

  • Starts during the year to September 2017: 18,680.
  • Starts during the year to September 2018: 17,180.
  • Starts during the year to September 2019: 14,210.

And for completions:

  • Completions during the year to September 2017: 23,070.
  • Completions to the year ending September 2018: 22,140.
  • Completions to the year ending September 2019: 21,960.

Yes, there’s pattern – both sets of numbers have slowly drifted down.

You can pore over the figures for yourselves, by going to the relevant ONS page, clicking on “view all dat related to housing” and then “ouse building: permanent dwellings started and completed by English region”. Find Table 7 for London. Before you do, two things to note:

One, the vast majority of starts and completions were by private builders, with housing associations and local authorities coming distant seconds and thirds in both cases. That’s worth keeping in mind when you hear candidates for London Mayor talking about heir housing policies.

Two, if you go back a little to around 2015, the numbers of starts and completions are generally quite a bit higher. Why? There will have been various reasons. But one will have been that the “prime market” – the one for the most astoundingly expensive dwellings – peaked around that time, before declining, partly due to the then chancellor George Osborne making changes to stamp duty at the end of 2014.

Was that good thing? Londoners struggling to buy a home might well think so. On the other hand, a booming high end also yields larger numbers of “affordable” homes and other community benefits as a by-product – and maybe more homes overall. So you can look it in more than way. But one thing is for sure – the gap between London’s housing targets and London’s housing supply does not look likely to disappear any time soon. The target in Sadiq Khan’s draft new London Plan was 65,000 new homes a year. Under pressure from the government, he has lowered it to 52,000. But even that looks way out of reach.

Photograph: Omar Jan

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Categories: Analysis

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