Are we witnessing the start of another housing problem?

Are we witnessing the start of another housing problem?

There’s something, no lots of things, desperately disturbing about today’s stories (examples here and here) telling of Government panic over potentially unflattering house-building figures released just before the General Election.

Where to start?

Let’s start with “starts”. These seem to be the housing figures in question.

On 20 February I tweeted: “For those not familiar with the terminology: you live in a housing completion, you don’t live in a housing start”

It was a jibe in response to a press release on the latest house building figures. They showed housing starts in England up 23% in 2013 on 2012. They also showed completions down 5% 2013 on 2012.

Mr Eric Pickles and his advisers chose to crow on the starts figure to gain immediate impact with the headline: “Housebuilding at highest for 6 years.”

Really?

To understand the starts figures you need to consider stock and flow and restocking effects in the house building world. You also need to consider what’s been happening on the ground in planning. (I did a blog with some charts that in part covers this point here.)

A better measure of how well house building has been doing in these official figures is the number of homes completed. I’ll not hang around explaining why even these are no perfect measure of success in terms of solving the housing problem.

I will however say that housing starts data are useful forward indicators for what might be built. So are planning approvals, net reservations, mortgage transactions and a host of other data. But they are not an accurate predictor of what will be built and when. And they are probably worse than some of the other indicators mentioned.

Starts figures are also very volatile. Naturally they swung up rapidly from a very low base. This produced impressive sounding percentage gains, the type politicians can’t help seizing upon.

Why did we see such a sharp upswing? Firstly because house builders needed to restock their much depleted production pipelines, which (collectively) had been run down during the recession. Secondly, because new land was coming through, after a few years of a slowing in applications and approvals, there were more sites to be opened, more starts to be made. Thirdly, because the production levels had to be readjusted upward to meet current demand the rate of starts had to rise. And there are other more subtle reasons for the rapid rise in starts.

Any smart fellow would realise that this probably would lead to an initial surge and then things would settle down, if not fall off slightly, but remain at a higher level.

The completion figures however relate to sales. Looking forward these will rise, but more slowly and more steadily than starts as the industry emerges from recession and transactions pick up.

The eagerness of the Government to claim credit over its opposition for “fixing” the housing market had them pick starts over the less impressive completions figures.

Now it seems they have twigged to the possibility that they will be hoist by their own petard, as the volatile starts figures might just dip at an inconvenient time. Poetic don’t you think?

This reveals four things, if not more:

  • The shallowness of politics and its concerns with how it looks rather than what it does;
  • The vanity among certain politicians, matched only by their delusion over the effectiveness of their actions;
  • The abuse to which politicians will put otherwise useful statistics;
  • The apparent crass stupidity over the workings of the housing market at the heart of the department notionally charged with solving its problems.

I’ll stop before I just repeat myself, but less politely.

There is of course another disturbing aspect to all this if the media reports are correct. The fear within the Government that it might look silly now appears to be driving housing policy.

To be quite honest, I’m a bit surprised by this. I’d naturally expected a simpler solution to this obvious potential trap, a switch within the department to ditch the starts data as the prime measure to highlight progress in house building and place the emphasis on completions. Obviously the growth rate would be much poorer and the level appalling relative to the past, but the likelihood is that it will at least be heading in the right direction as we enter full-scale election fever.

However disingenuous that might be it is preferable to tailoring a policy that impacts on the lives of thousands of people and is central to the economy to meet some spurious Government PR target.

But what do I know about politics?

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