The housing crisis in Britain continues unabated. As the country is building only half the homes needed to tackle a severe housing shortage. And with the lack of new homes, house price increases are at their highest since before the recession. The average house price across the UK is now £273,000 and in London that figure is almost double, at £498,000.
For Andy Hill, founder and chief executive of Hill Partnerships, a large housebuilder based in the South-East, Britain’s housing woes will continue as long as the green belt restrictions – designed to protect Britain’s countryside – remain stringent.
“Ultimately, if bits of green belt land are released at a time and it’s controlled, it’s not a major issue. Everyone is trying to develop brownfield sites as quickly as we can. We understand they’ve got to take priority, but developing on brownfield sites takes a long time and we need to get the housebuilding numbers up,” he says.
The UK’s brownfield sites – land that has been previously developed and has the potential to be redeveloped – have been more popular among housebuilders in recent years as strong restrictions remain on building on Britain’s green spaces.
There is enough brownfield land in England for 2.5m new homes, the Government estimates, a large proportion of which are in London where demand for new homes is at its highest.
George Osborne, the Chancellor, said last year that he aims to build 200,000 on brownfield land by 2020, by putting local development orders on more than 90pc of sites that are suitable for housing.
However, brownfield sites can be expensive to prepare, for example if existing buildings need to be demolished, and are typically higher in price than undeveloped land.
“Getting planning permission is another hurdle,” says Hill. “Gone are the days of being able to buy a piece of land and start developing nine months later. Starting from scratch, it takes about a year to get approval, then up to another 12 months to start on site. It’s amazing and highly frustrating how long it takes to get planning.”
Green belt land covers 13pc of the land area of England, or an estimated 1,639,560 hectares (4m acres), while brownfield land covers almost 70,000 hectares, equivalent to almost 100,000 football pitches.
Hill Partnerships, based in Waltham Abbey, Essex, built more than 1,300 homes last year, mainly in the South East. This year, there are 1,635 in the pipeline, with a total sales value estimated at £650m. In Britain as a whole, a total of 118,770 new homes were built in 2014, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government – less than half the annual industry-accepted figure required to tackle the housing shortage.
The latest monthly index from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) – deemed to be a barometer for the residential property market – found that 33pc more of its members saw price rises in the UK in April than in March – the highest level since last August.
“Alongside an increased flow of second-hand stock, it is absolutely critical that the new Government focuses on measures to boost the flow of new build [homes],” warned Simon Rubinsohn, chief economist at Rics.
Turnover at Hill Partnerships was £250m in 2014, and profit was £18m, a 30pc rise on the year before. The company employs 350 people and has five offices in the South East. Hill, 56, set up the business in 1999 after years managing a construction firm.
“We started as a contractor for housing associations and built our first development site in 2003. We got in at just the right time before the house boom of the early 2000s. Since then, the business has grown steadily – about 10pc to 30pc growth per annum,” says Hill. He remortgaged his home to fund the venture and the company is still owned by the Hill family, with no external investment.
Hill Partnerships built its first major development in 2005 – a block of 137 flats in Stevenage. Current projects include the 249-home North West Cambridge development and Barton Park in Oxford, which will deliver 237 homes.
Four fifths of Hill’s business is outside London, and in the capital the focus is on the suburbs. It has invested in Hackney, Walthamstow and is currently working on a 140-home joint venture in Southwark.
Suburbs in London such as Hackney, in the north east of the city, along with nearby Walthamstow, have become prime property locations in recent years.
House prices in Hackney, once seen as a rundown part of town, have ballooned by 800pc in the past 30 years.
The average flat price in the Hackney region, which includes Shoreditch and Stoke Newington, is now £444,391, according to figures from property website Rightmove, while a semi-detached property can fetch more than £1.1m.
Hill says that Walthamstow is another area that is continuing to rise in value. In the past three years, prices in the area have risen by around 80pc in value, with the average cost of a one-bed flat at £300,000. He is currently selling a two-bedroom penthouse apartment in the area for £520,000.
“We’ve focused away from zones in central London, which are far more expensive,” says Hill. “Areas such as Walthamstow have had terrific growth. The area is high in demand and has become a very popular place to live.”
He adds that the possibility of a rise in interest rates next year could affect business, making people more wary about borrowing money. He says that business is currently buoyant as “there has never been a better time to get a mortgage” as people are getting attractive rates and fixing them for five years.
“The real problem is getting the first time buyers on to the ladder. It’s very, very difficult,” he says. “Mortgage lenders make them jump through hoops. They’re always looking for reasons why they could fail rather than focusing on helping them succeed. I haven’t seen enough of the Help To Buy Isas to comment on their effectiveness, but the concept is good.”