Sunday, 7 July 2013

Four "solutions" to the housing crisis

The Guardian just posted something called Ten Solutions to the Housing Crisis, which I expected to be moderately interesting, but it was disappointing. Rather than an article by a housing specialist, it's a photoset - a mildly interesting one, to be sure, but still.

Plus, I felt like its approach was too house-centric.

The "housing crisis" in Britain seems to boil down to a few points:

  • Most of the jobs and money are in the South-East, so people move there
  • The supply of housing in the South-East doesn't meet demand
  • People tend to prefer living in houses to apartments
  • Parents rarely downgrade to a smaller house once children move out; in any case there aren't usually enough small properties for people to do that on a large scale.
  • Building large houses is vastly more profitable than affordable houses or small apartments, even though much of the housing demand is from young working people without children. Even where plans originally offer affordable housing, it's rarely actually built when push comes to shove.
  • Apartments are bizarrely expensive compared to houses, so moving from house to apartment - or getting a small flat as your first place - is very suboptimal.
  • People don't really want more houses building on green land, and don't want their own towns expanding.

Of course, there are apparently 330,000 long-term empty homes in the UK, plus at least 300,000 flat above shops that bizarrely don't have residential use permission, plus many thousands of homes (5,000 in Bradford alone) that aren't currently in usable condition. But many of those are not in London. How selfish of them.

I think part of the problem is the general argument seems to insist on several incompatible key planks. More housing is needed. Greenbelt land should not be built on. People shouldn't have to live in big blocks of flats. Free movement of people must be maintained. And the economic dominance of the South-East must not be interfered with - though the Government at least never mention that last one.

As far as I can see, there are really only a handful of ways to cope with this, and all of them involve sacrificing one of these ideals.

One rather undesirable option is to reduce the population: this would probably reduce demand to some extent, but involves a lot of interference one way or the other. Neither one-child policies nor tough immigration limits are very welcome. Even on a purely pragmatic-for-housing view, though, it'd take a good while and might not produce a more even distribution.

Another one is to accept the inevitable draw of the rich, job-filled South East with its constant fawning from the Government, and supply the houses. You wanted fields? Tough. Concrete over the Home Counties, ruthlessly build the houses demanded by the population dynamics sustained by economics and policy. This would significantly reduce the appeal of the place for many people, and is probably environmentally disastrous, but it would provide the necessary housing.

Next, you could change planning and building regulations - or have the Government take over entirely. Stop building large properties, which are pretty abundant these days, and instead build only terraces and blocks of flats. Provide small properties for young workers, childless couples and those whose children have moved out, and provide the infrastructure (transport, libraries, bike hire, community spaces) so that the shortage of space isn't much of an issue. There isn't enough space in London for that right now, so you'd almost certainly have to develop not only brownfield sites, but also existing housing. Knock down existing inefficient 4-bedroomed houses and building 10-storey blocks of flats.

But the most sensible option is surely the social engineering one: stop obsessing about London. It is neither necessary nor inevitable that London and the South-East are where everything happens in the UK, parasitically sucking in people. The Government could actively discourage the growth of London, and encourage (not just with the usual token carrot, but with stick) more even distribution across the UK, where many more houses are available and there are often brownfield sites that could be redeveloped into flats (whereas those in the SE tend to have been used already). This would not only help with housing shortages, but also reduce obscene housing prices - though it would probably hurt the pockets of many politicians, who tend to own property in the SE even if they're not in property themselves. It would stimulate the economy of other parts of the country, not only from having more going on, but because having prestigious companies with high-level employees tends to create jobs serving those companies and employees.

But short of a new crop of politicians emerging who aren't enslaved to the lights and noise of the London Beast, and to companies and executives who shrink with horror at the prospect the regions, I don't imagine that will ever happen.

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