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Professor Martin Boddy (UWE / SWO)

Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Business Engagement at the University of the West of England

Here he introduces the topic of housing, planning and the economy and the challenges it presents, sharing his thoughts on the role of the South West Observatory in all of this.

We don’t need further reminders of the imperative to pursue economic recovery, rebalance the economy and avoid triple-dip recession. And we know that housing and house-building are a major and immediate stimulus to the economy and critical to the growth agenda. Ensuring the supply of affordable and attractive housing in parts of the country like the South West, where people want to live and business wants to invest is essential. Whether local communities like it or not, much of past growth in prosperous southern England that has driven the success of UK plc has been built on in-migration from other parts of the country and retaining those with the skills critical to the growth of the knowledge-based economy of the future, those brought up or educated in the region. And affordable housing, to own or rent, are crucial in their own right. This much we know.

But last year, Britain built less than 100,000 houses, the lowest rate we have seen since the 1920s and far below the 240,000 benchmark that many see as necessary to meet current and future needs. And house prices are sky high – the average (median) house price in the South West has more than doubled in the last ten years alone. The barrier facing first-time buyers is, for many, insurmountable. The average first-time buyer in the South West has to save all of their salary for nearly three years to afford the typical deposit – that’s all their salary, nothing left for rent, food, clothing, heating…

Moreover, where prices are at a peak, rents are also at their highest.  In the short-term, much of this is down to the economy and the financial crisis, this is why the housing market has stalled. But in medium to longer term we are storing up major problems. In the name of localism, the national planning system including longer-term strategic plans and targets to meet housing need has been torn up and local communities given the major say in future levels of house-building. Since 2010, local councils in England have reduced the number of new homes they are planning for by over a quarter of a million. In the South West, councils are planning for 115,000 less homes to be built over the next twenty years.

The impacts on house prices, affordability and the economy, already in a state of crisis hardly bear thinking about. But think about them we must – and the array of experts assembled for the South West Observatory conference on Housing, Planning and Economy, held at the University of the West of England Conference Centre in Bristol on 26 February set out to do just that – to square the circle between local planning policies, house prices and affordability and the implications for the economy and economic recovery. Some of their thinking is set out here and presentations from the conference are available via this section of the website.

The key role of the Observatory in all this is to help provide the evidence base to inform future policy, to bring together key actors to debate and to help understand the issues, and to help develop a degree of consistency, common understanding – and economy of effort – to underpin our thinking in these critical issues.
Read other comments and observations from the event:

Nick Boles MP (Planning Minister)

Prof Glen Bramley (Heriot Watt)

Paul Swinney (Centre for Cities)

Karuna Tharmananthar (West of England)

Simon Prescott
(Barton Willmore)