Not Quite The Answer We Were Looking For

Well, I’m still not entirely clear on how we arrived again at THAT time of year. I’m pretty sure it was only six months ago that I last wished you compliments of the season, but then I do feel that things have started to become a little blurry. It’s not that I’ve taken to a mid-morning sherry; I’m referring to the fact that the once distinct and separate calendar festivals are in danger of becoming one big amorphous blob. For example, I went into a well-known high-street retailer last month, and they had both a Halloween Department and a Christmas Department open at the same time. I’m pretty sure there used to be a gap between the two; I don’t recall ever simultaneously carving a pumpkin and decorating the tree. But such are the pressures driving the world of retail, I suppose.

That whole time of year thing hasn’t been helped by the clocks going back. The rather depressing realisation that anything that happens after about 4.30 pm must now take place in the dark definitely makes for a wintry mood. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not Christmas-bashing. In fact, I love Christmas; I just don’t want the extended play version. Cynically, I rather expect that someone will soon launch an advent calendar that starts in October. Clearly, this won’t relate to Advent in its religious sense; it will more likely relate to the arrival of Christmas cards in Tesco (but if it’s a chocolate advent calendar, count me in).

That said, this inexorable march towards the bowels of winter was briefly halted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who recently revealed his Autumn Statement. Technically, November is an autumn month, so he just dipped under the wire and gave us, nominally at least, the fleeting impression that the last of summer’s leaves might still be clinging to the trees, although my lawn tells a different story. And, given where we are in the political calendar, everyone was expecting the Chancellor to dole out a few early Christmas presents, which indeed proved to be the case. It’s the biggest tax giveaway in 30 years if you believe some of the headlines. Yet, bizarrely, we are still apparently going to be taxed at a higher rate than anyone has ever been before.

Stealth taxes are, of course, the weapon of choice for any discerning chancellor. Freezing a threshold or two makes it sound like you’re not doing anything too draconian – in fact, it sounds like it’s a case of ‘no change’. Yet the reality is very different, as the millions of people that now find themselves higher rate taxpayers and IHT payers can testify. But one of the things I like about an Autumn Statement is that it’s a bit like a film festival. There are several items that get top billing and which everyone raves about. But then tucked away in the margins are several other offerings which, while less mainstream, can be every bit as entertaining. And this Statement proved to be no exception.

Way down on page 76 were several items relating to housing, which, at face value, all sounded like they could be quite interesting.

First up was an additional £32m investment aimed at ‘unlocking thousands of homes’ and ‘clearing planning backlogs’, two objectives that only the most ardent environmentalist could argue were a bad thing. Now, £32m can be viewed as a lot of money, but it rather depends on your perspective. If you found it down the back of the sofa or had the only winning lottery ticket, it probably means instant retirement (and a new sofa). But if you had to share it with 316 other people in your syndicate, it’s more of a nice holiday or two and maybe a new car or kitchen. Given that there are 317 local authorities nationally, the pledged £32m means that each will get an average of just £100k in additional funding. Certainly not something to be sniffed at, but I’m not sure how far the needle will move on planning backlogs, given how underfunded our planning system currently is. One of the problems with housing is that headline investment numbers can sound like a great deal of money, but, in reality, it doesn’t actually stretch that far.

Interestingly, the Chancellor also proposed a new Permitted Development Right (PDR) that would allow us to convert a single house into two flats. As soon as this was announced (plus the time it took them to read down to page 76), I was contacted by a number of journalists who seemed to think that this would have a huge impact on the current housing crisis. After all, everyone knows there are millions of elderly people stuck in big houses who surely could now literally downsize downstairs and have a bit of equity release by selling their former sleeping quarters. Except that it’s not quite as simple as that – you can’t just create a new internal porch with two front doors. That’s because both households need to be separated both acoustically and to meet fire regulations – and to allow for services – which in most instances would involve ripping down the ceilings and putting in new ones. Then there are the economics of it all. Converting commercial buildings into residential gives you a significant uplift because residential property commands a premium. But there’s no such uplift when you convert a residential house into two residential flats because, you’ve guessed it, both are already residential. Yes, your two flats will in most cases command a premium over your single house, but you’ve then got to deduct from this the cost of doing the conversion, which will severely dent your uplift. So, for developers, the cost model looks dubious albeit I accept that, for some landlords willing to take the longer view, it may be worth doing.

Next up, the Chancellor promised to do something about the thorny issue of nutrient neutrality. This is where Natural England (NE) has effectively banned housebuilding in around a quarter of local authorities (NE would argue that they’ve done no such thing, but as there are currently 150,000+ new homes that can’t be built as a result of their actions, the effect is the same). In a nutshell, new homes lead to additional nutrients entering our water system, and NE has said that these must be offset or neutralised before planning consent can be given. Rather than address the problem head-on in the Autumn Statement (or anywhere else for that matter), the government has instead chosen to promise cash to local authorities who will create nutrient mitigation programmes. The idea is that developers can purchase nutrient offsetting credits relative to the number of new homes they’ll be building, and this money will be used to fund nutrient offsetting schemes. So, the extra funding sounds like it will help, but the big question is how by much? Well, the commitment is £110m which the government reckons will ‘unlock up to 40,000 homes over the next five years’.

Let’s unpack that for a moment because it merits further analysis. The government has said that it wants us to build 300,000 new homes each year, which equates to 1.5m over five years. There are currently 150,000 new homes that can’t be built in the nutrient-affected areas, and those councils account for around a quarter of all local authorities. So, using my rudimentary maths, over the next five years, these affected councils need to build around 375,000 new homes, plus they need to catch up on the existing 150,000 backlog, making 525,000 new homes in total. If the government will only be unlocking 40,000 of them, then they’re only scratching the surface of what is a very significant problem. Basically, it’s a drop in the ocean.

And then, of course, there are the distinctly weaselly words ‘up to’ in the expression ‘…unlock up to 40,000 homes…’. Because if I promised to give you up to £40,000, I’ve fulfilled my commitment even if I only gave you a pound. So there’s no way the government can fail to do what it promises, mainly because it hasn’t promised anything much at all.

It’s all rather a case of papering over the cracks. Throwing a bit of spare cash at these problems pays for more sticking plasters but it doesn’t solve the underlying issue. That would require a much more draconian approach, one that this or any previous government has so far lacked any appetite to take. Instead we get a series of positive sounding headlines that don’t actually change very much at all.

In a similar vein, the government says that it ‘remains committed to building the affordable homes this country needs, building on the success of the existing Affordable Homes Guarantee Scheme through a £3 billion extension which will help the scheme deliver 20,000 new homes’. Again, the commitment sounds great, but 20,000 new homes is small beer given how many new houses we actually need.

Now, I’m firmly apolitical when it comes to government policy – I know it probably doesn’t sound like it, but I simply call things as I see them. I’m fully confident the next government will be equally rubbish at solving these problems, whichever colour flag they’re flying, partly because they are difficult problems to fix. I’m also a passionate advocate for small-scale property developers helping to solve the housing crisis. We have around 1.2m new homes that could be created by repurposing or converting redundant commercial property, and the only people who can make a dent in this opportunity are the SME developers. This is because the larger housebuilders operate on a very different model. They look for a juicy large slab of land with nothing on it, and this allows them to build their range of pre-designed houses of all shapes and sizes and make millions of pounds in profit in the process. Give them an empty office building or shop and their computer simply says ‘no’. Their business model doesn’t involve the repurposing of an existing building. Plus, why would they look at a project that only makes a few hundred thousand in profit when they could be making millions?

Which makes it the perfect place for smaller developers to operate in. As a rule, converting existing buildings is cheaper, quicker, and less risky than going down the new-build route, and the government needs to be doing even more to encourage new developers to get involved. Ironically, small-scale property development is an ideal fit for existing landlords, a group the government has shamelessly targeted over the last decade. Let’s face it; it’s about time they had some government-sponsored good news. Historically, SME developers accounted for 30% of the new homes built in this country. Today they account for just 12%. The government has done a good job (see, I told you I was apolitical) in increasing the number of Permitted Development Rights, and there is still more it can do to help get these existing buildings converted. The way we shop and work has changed over the last two decades, leaving a legacy of unneeded buildings that can readily be recycled. This should be the priority, over and above building on our precious greenbelt.

Ok, rant over, as are my reflections on the Autumn Statement, which could reasonably be summarised as some big pieces of good news that will make a difference sandwiched between smaller pieces of good news that won’t. One journalist told me it was understandable that the government was opting to sprinkle a veneer of fairy dust over these problems rather than tackle difficult matters head-on, given that there’s an election on the horizon. I told them that being understandable doesn’t make it right. After all, if everyone stopped working on Fridays because there’s a weekend on the horizon, where would we be (and don’t say ‘in the Civil Service’)?

Before I go, I should tell you that many people have completely failed to ask me what my prediction for the next budget in 2024 is, so I thought it was only fitting to cave in to such overwhelming apathy. So here goes; if I were a betting man, I’d say that with an election looming, the government might be tempted to look at our two unfairest taxes: inheritance tax and stamp duty. I suspect it would be somewhat optimistic to think they’d ditch both of them altogether, but we can but hope. So, if you’re an optimist who’s planning on moving or dying any time soon, it might be worth holding off for another year or so. But since I’m not a betting man, please don’t hold me to it.

Well, that’s it from me for 2023. I’m just off to look for some Easter eggs and a Mother’s Day card in the pre-Xmas sale after which I will settle down for what I hope will be both a peaceful and merry festive period with an abundance of mince pies.

May I wish you every ounce of the same, and here’s to a better, and I suspect even quicker, 2024.