One reason we’re in this mess is because the government has loaded developers with a weird assortment of tasks – which suggests an analogy with a well-known game

Out of the mouths of babes and infants come surprising truths. And out of the children’ s toy cupboard comes an explanation of the housing market.

Children’s games have changed utterly since I was at school in the seventies. Where we had the drab simplicity of the Risk map to plot our conquests on, today’s teenagers have the digital universe of World of Warcraft to range over and pillage. While we fantasised about being Archie Gemmell as we kicked balls between anoraks on the ground, now Nintendo Wii brings every championship sport into your living room. But there’s one game I know of that has retained its hold on children’s affections. A surprisingly crude amusement that I enjoyed as a boy and my son still loves today. It’s called Buckaroo. And it helps explain what’s gone wrong in the construction industry.

For those of you who don’t know it, Buckaroo is a game of some skill and an enormous amount of chance. It’s a plastic mule with a spring attachment. The object of the game is for each player to pile a plastic tool onto the mule’s back until the point where the weight becomes too much and the poor animal bucks, flinging everything to the ground, and we go back to square one.

Which is where we’ve got to in the housing market. And the reason Buckaroo is so illuminating is that it underlines the eternal truth that if you pile too much onto even the most willing bearer of burdens then you end up getting nowhere. Which is what this government has done with developers.

However unpopular developers may be, we need them. Regency
Bath and Edinburgh’s New Town are just as much their work as Centrepoint or Cumbernauld

Now I realise that comparing property developers with asses, even little plastic ones, is what you’d expect from a politician. Developers are one of the few classes of people less popular than we are. But I’m not using the Buckaroo comparison to poke fun at developers but to sympathise with them. Because, however unpopular they may be, we need them. Regency Bath and Edinburgh’s New Town are just as much their work as Centrepoint or Cumbernauld. Over the past 10 years or so, however, developers became more than just housebuilders. They became cash machines, agents of social justice and environmental good fairies.

Developers appear to make significant sums of money from transforming a patch of empty land into a desirable set of homes through the strange, and to politicians, alien process of taking a risk and working hard. Politicians wanted to take that money and spread it more widely. Some would go to the local community through section 106 agreements, some would go to the Treasury through capital gains or planning fees or the income taxes paid by consultants, lawyers and everyone else involved in securing planning permission. But that wasn’t the end of it.

Developers also had to act as crusaders for social justice by finding the money out of their development to ensure that half of the housing was “affordable”, which is to say, given more cheaply to some, so the state can look generous. Then, having helped build a New Jersualem as well as somewhere for people to live, the developers were expected to save the planet. New homes had to be built in a more sustainable fashion than ever before, complete with every energy-saving device possible. The developer was to do the heavy lifting to reduce carbon emissions in the home, while at the power station they continued on their merry old way.

Now many of the things we asked of developers were good in themselves – communities should share in the profits that come from building growth, subsidising homes for those in need is wonderful and energy-efficient houses are in everyone’ s interests. But government grew into the habit of asking more and more of the developer on the assumption that, since property prices were rising ever upwards, more and more demands could be piled onto their backs.

The developer was to reduce carbon emissions in the home, while at the power station they continued on their
merry old way

Until that is, the market went buckaroo. Now we’re in a position where it isn’t rational for developers to invest in building when the costs are so high and the prices they can get are so low. Even as the amount that can be charged for new homes comes down, the demands on what developers are expected to provide doesn’t diminish.

As we look around for ways to kickstart the housing market, shouldn’t we think, whatever else we contemplate, of just how we can relieve some of the burdens on developers? Maybe starting with the absurdly expensive planning process? Because at the moment this piling on of costs means it’s the people who work in construction, and those on waiting lists for new homes, who are getting kicked in the teeth.