Was Rishi Sunak’s new claim about a house building record accurate?

3 March 2023
What was claimed

House building numbers hit a record high under this government.

Our verdict

The number of ‘net additional dwellings’ did hit the highest point on record in 2019/20, but these statistics only go back to the early 1990s. Other metrics and housing experts suggest that, while recent building figures are higher than in some previous years, they’re generally far lower than records set decades ago.

Actually, we’ve had recordly high [sic] numbers of house building and, indeed, the highest number of first-time buyers in around 20 years under this government.

During Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on 1 March, Rishi Sunak claimed that house building has been at a record high under the current government. 

Although the wording of his claim was not entirely clear, in response to a question from Labour leader Keir Starmer about house building targets, Mr Sunak claimed that there had been “recordly high numbers of house building”.

While it’s technically true that one housing supply measure hit the highest point on record in 2019/20, figures on this only date back to the early 1990s. Other measures show that there were much higher levels of house building in previous decades. 

We have fact checked a similar but slightly more specific claim from Mr Sunak before. At his first PMQs, in October 2022, the Prime Minister said: “I'm pleased we had a record number of new homes built in the last year.” 

We did not find any evidence to support that claim and Number 10 never provided any evidence for it, despite several requests from Full Fact. We have written to Mr Sunak twice to ask him to correct the record on that point, but have never received a response. Mr Sunak subsequently provided some clarification in response to a written question but the official record remains uncorrected 

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Number of new homes did set a record by one specific measure 

When we contacted Downing Street for the evidence behind Mr Sunak’s claim on 1 March, a spokesperson directed us to the same response from the Prime Minister to a written question about his previous house building claim. 

Mr Sunak wrote: “I am happy to clarify that it was this Conservative Government which oversaw the highest level of new homes delivered in over 30 years before the disruption of the pandemic, with 242,000 homes (a net increase in housing supply) delivered between April 2019 and March 2020.” 

This is true according to a set of government figures called “net additional dwellings”, which show the number of homes added to the overall stock of housing in England. 

It’s important to note that these figures don’t strictly relate to “house building”—as well as new build homes they also include conversions (such as turning a large house into multiple flats) and changes of use such as an old shop into a house or flats. They also include demolitions, and so are representative of additions and subtractions from the overall housing stock. 

Crucially, these figures also only date back to the early 1990s. (The Gov.uk website says figures are available from 1990 and lists figures from 1991, though it says local authorities have only submitted data on this directly since 2000.) So as Mr Sunak acknowledged in his written answer, any record only relates to recent decades. Other types of housing statistics, as we explore below, show that historically many more houses have been built than under the current Conservative government. 

Paul Cheshire, emeritus professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics, told Full Fact: “He [Mr Sunak] didn't cite net additions, he cited house building which is different. 

“We have actual construction, new houses, which you can objectively measure, a house or a flat is actually built, and then you have demolitions and you have conversions of existing bigger houses into smaller units. 

“Now increasingly, you have permitted development rights whereby either obsolete shops or obsolete offices are converted into dwellings. So politicians used to talk about new construction and mean new construction because demolitions were significant so usually, new construction would actually be higher than net additions. 

“But that was 40 years ago. But as housing has become scarcer, of course, people are less likely to knock down old houses so demolitions tend to fall, so you have more obsolete stock.

“So now net additions are significantly higher than new construction.”

Historical data shows more houses were built in previous decades

John Perry, a policy advisor at the Chartered Institute of Housing, told Full Fact: “The best recent year for house building according to construction statistics was 2019, the best for 30 years. 2022 looks to produce a slightly lower figure… However, house building was much higher in the 1960s and 1970s than it is now.”

There is another set of statistics used to measure the number of new homes in the UK, called “indicators of new supply”. These are published by the government on a quarterly basis for England, and show both the number of new homes being started and the number of new homes being completed.

Calendar-year data on new homes started in England dates back to 1978. Under the current government, the highest number of new homes started in a calendar year was in 2021 with 177,920. But the record year according to this data set was 1978 with 226,680 homes started. The government’s 2021 record was also beaten in 1979, 1983, 1986 to 1988 and 2007. 

The government data on new homes completed in England goes back even further, to 1946. These figures show that more new homes were built in England each year from 1952 to 1980 than in any year since 2010, though it does warn “data for earlier years are less reliable and definitions may not be consistent throughout the series”. 

The most recent figures on new homes being started and completed in England cover the quarter ending September 2022, and show that in the first three quarters of the year there were 144,910 homes started and 127,650 homes completed. It’s worth noting that the second quarter of 2022 saw the number of homes started hit a new recent high, with 56,140 the highest figure in a three-month period since the second quarter of 1988. 

There is other relevant data as well. The Office for National Statistics publishes figures on completions for the entire United Kingdom, both by financial year and calendar year. These also show that there were much higher levels of new houses being completed between the early 1950s to the 1980s than there have been under this current government. 

The House of Commons Library has published data stretching even further into the past. These figures show there were higher numbers of houses built in the UK between 1934 and 1940, between 1948 and 1981, in 1984, from 1986 to 1989, and in 2007 than have been built in any year from 2010 to 2019 (where the data ends). 

It should be noted that the House of Commons Library does state that figures pre-1945 are derived from a different source to figures from 1946 onwards, so these figures are “not necessarily directly comparable”.

As we have written before, while housebuilding has been at relatively high levels in the past few years, long term trends show it has decreased significantly. 

Number of first-time buyers did reach 20-year high in 2021

Regarding the other part of Mr Sunak’s claim, it was reported in early 2022 that 2021 had seen a 20-year high in the number of people buying their first home. More than 408,000 people bought their first home over the course of the year, the highest total since the record of 531,800 was set in 2002. 

While first-time buyers did make up the largest proportion of home purchases in 2022, it has been estimated that the overall number fell by 9% when compared to 2021.

Full Fact has contacted Number 10 for further comment.

Image courtesy of Jamie Lorriman

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