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Britain's Housing Crisis - The Brownfield Solution?

03/03/2015 14:45 GMT | Updated 02/05/2015 10:59 BST

As the May general election looms, housing remains a key issue over which the different political parties will scrap it out until the polls close. Of course they'll all promise the earth, offering to solve the UK's housing shortage with inflated numbers of how many houses they expect to build, but in reality how many of these much needed new homes will ever get off the ground?

There's no denying that our housing shortage is a political hot potato of epic proportions. Just last week, in fact, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett got caught out on talk radio station LBC when she said that her party planned to build 500,000 new homes for £2.7bn (a cost of around £60,000 per home) if they came into power. The interviewer Nick Ferrari amusingly quipped "what are they made of? Plywood?" in retort, and proceeded to rip the ill-conceived policy to shreds. Humorous as it may be, this just highlights the problems that face the ruling parties when it comes to finding the budget to build all of the new houses we need.

New housing is necessary because British society is evolving. People live longer, marry later, and divorce more often, meaning that there are more and more households - that is, groups of people who live together, such as families - that need somewhere to live. Government statistics from 2013 actually project that the number of new households will hit 221,000 per year by the year 2021. So where are these people going to live? And why on earth aren't new homes being built at a rate that reflects the demand?

On a more positive note, the number of houses built in England last year did rise by 8% to 118,760, but really we need to look at doubling this number to be at an acceptable level. Don't just take my word for it, homelessness charity Shelter are of the same view, and were annoyed that the 8% rise was the focus of the news stories that followed, instead of the fact that we are still failing to build anywhere near enough houses. I couldn't agree more.

The obvious effect of having a housing shortage is that many households will end up either living in homes that are sub-par, or without any home at all. It also causes house prices to skyrocket. It's no coincidence that since 1988 - the last time 200,000 homes were built - the average house price has risen from £45,000 to £189,000. So, as you can see, it's not just about having enough homes, but about having affordable homes as well.

Supply and demand, the most basic of economic principles, states that a shortage of any consumer good will lead to higher prices. This is the situation the housing market is in now. Conversely, a surplus in consumer goods leads to a decrease in house prices. This is a scenario that for a generation of young people, who stand little to no chance of ever getting on the housing ladder, would be no bad thing. However, the home owners among us may disagree.

Of course, there are numerous reasons why more new homes aren't being built. One of the major ones being that hundreds of thousands of new homes will obviously cost billions of pounds to build. However, another issue that desperately needs addressing is that finding land on which to build these new homes is becoming increasingly problematic. Green belt sites are fraught with planning problems, but what about our brownfield sites?

The government urgently need to implement measures that allow the housing industry to aggressively exploit brownfield land. For the uninitiated, brownfield land is reclaimable land that is left unoccupied following industrial use, such as a disused factory. So while developers may prefer to build new communities on desirable green belt land, the government restrictions imposed upon new builds on these sites makes attaining planning permission difficult and expensive. Brownfield land may require work to reclaim, but it's cheaper, planning permission is easier to attain, and it's typically closer to urban areas where demand for housing is higher. Furthermore, making the best possible use of our brownfield land and keeping strong safeguards in place that protects our valued countryside is clearly the ideal we should all be aiming for.

Clearly the potential of brownfield sites is not lost on the government, just this week the Conservatives pledged to build 200,000 new homes on brownfield land by 2020. In addition, 20 new housing zones on this brownfield land in London will benefit from £400 million funding from the government and the Greater London Authority. And there will be £200 million of additional government funding available for 10 zones outside London.

The government evidently recognise the potential of brownfield land, but the numbers they're talking about just aren't big enough. We need to be building 200,000 new homes on brownfield sites every year, not just by 2020.

Housing is a major issue for the upcoming election, and rightly so. But it's time to ditch the political rhetoric and get serious about an exponential growth in the number of new builds, before the housing crisis gets any worse.

Simon Thomas is the Managing Director of Asset International, a leading manufacturer of large diameter plastic pipes. Asset International Ltd supplies bespoke designs to the water and construction industries, from surface drainage to foul sewers and inter-process pipework: www.weholite.co.uk