By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 4th January 2010.
There are two housing crises in Britain. One of them is obvious and familiar: the walloping shortfall in supply. Yet the new homes the government says we need - 5.8m by 2033 - threaten to mash our landscapes and overload the environment.
The other crisis is scarcely mentioned. It’s growing even faster than the first crisis - at a rate that’s hard to comprehend. Yet you’ll seldom hear a squeak about it in the press, in parliament, in government departments or even in the voluntary sector.
The issue is surplus housing: the remarkable growth of space that people don’t need. Between 2003 and 2008 (the latest available figures), there was a 45% increase in the number of under-occupied homes in England. Under-occupied usually means that households have at least two bedrooms more than they require. This category now accounts for over half the homes in which single people live, and almost a quarter of those used by larger households. Nearly 8 million homes - 37% of the total housing stock - are officially under-occupied.
The government reports that the rise in under-occupation “is entirely due to a large increase within the owner-occupied sector”. Nearly half of England’s private home owners are now knocking around in more space than they need.
Why is this happening? I’ve spent the past few days wading through official figures to try to find out. None of the most obvious explanations appear to fit.
While the proportion of homes occupied by just one person rose sharply between 1961 and 2001, since then there has been no increase. The formation of single households can’t account for the growth in under-occupancy between 2003 and 2008. The proportion of couples without children has also remained stable since 2001. Fertility rates have increased over this period - from 1.63 babies per woman in 2001 to 1.96 in 2009 - so a general absence of children doesn’t explain it either. Nor can it be blamed on the elderly: except through devastating war, no population can age by 45% in six years. The divorce rate fell in 2008 to its lowest level since 1979. Marriage has declined, but cohabitation has risen. The overall rate of household formation rose only slightly during the period in which under-occupancy has boomed.
This appears to leave just one likely explanation: money. My guess is that the richest third of the population has discovered that it can spread its wings. A report by the International Longevity Centre comes to the same conclusion: “wealth … is the key factor in whether or not we choose to occupy more housing space than is essential”.
While most houses are privately owned, the total housing stock is a common resource. Either we ensure that it is used wisely and fairly, or we allow its distribution to become the starkest expression of inequality. The UK appears to have chosen the second option. We have allowed the market and the market alone to decide who gets what, which means that families in desperate need of bigger homes are crammed together in squalid conditions, while those who have more space than they know what to do with face neither economic nor social pressure to downsize.
The only answer anyone is prepared to mention is more building: let the rich occupy as much space they wish, and solve the problem by dumping it on the environment, which means - of course - on everyone. I think there’s a better way.
A better distribution of the housing we’ve built already would help to relieve the pressure on both people and places. First we need to see the problem.
The next step is to reverse the UK’s daft fiscal incentive to under-occupy your home. If you live by yourself, regardless of the size of your property, you get a 25% council tax discount. The rest of us, in other words, subsidise wealthy single people who want to keep their spare rooms empty. Those who use more than their fair share should pay for the privilege, with a big tax penalty for under-occupation. If it prompts them either to take on a lodger or to move into a smaller home in a lower tax band, so much the better.
I would also like to see an expansion of the Homeshare scheme, which could address several growing problems at once. Instead of paying rent, lodgers, who are vetted and checked, help elderly home-owners with shopping, cleaning, cooking, gardening or driving. Typically they agree to spend ten hours a week helping out, and to sleep in the house for at least six nights out of seven. This helps older people to stay in their own homes and lead an independent life, gives them companionship and security and relieves some of the pressure on social services and carers. It provides homes for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford them.
But we can’t solve this problem unless we start to discuss it. It needs to be researched, debated, fought over. It needs to turn political. None of the major parties wants to pick a fight with wealthy householders. So it’s up to us to give them no choice.
Full article with refs at: www.monbiot.com