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Here’s the remarkable, hidden truth about our housing crisis.

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom

There are two housing crises in Britain. One of them is obvious and familiar: the walloping shortfall in supply. Households are forming at roughly twice the rate at which new homes are being built(1). In England alone, 650,000 homes are classed as overcrowded(2). Many other people are desperate to move into their own places, but find themselves stuck. Yet the new homes the government says we need – 5.8m by 2033(3) – threaten to mash our landscapes and overload the environment.

The other crisis is scarcely mentioned. I stumbled across it while researching last week’s column, buried on page 33 of a government document about another issue(4). 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. Given its political sensitivity, perhaps that’s not surprising.

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(5). The definition of under-occupied varies, but it usually means that households have at least two bedrooms more than they require(6). This category now accounts for over half the homes in which single people live, and almost a quarter of those used by larger households(7). Nearly 8 million homes – 37% of the total housing stock – are officially under-occupied(8).

The only occasions on which you’ll hear politicians talk about it is when they’re referring to public housing. Many local authorities are trying to encourage their tenants to move into smaller homes. But public and social housing account for only 11% of the problem(9). The government reports that the rise in under-occupation “is entirely due to a large increase within the owner-occupied sector”(10). Nearly half of England’s private home owners are now knocking around in more space than they need(11).

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(12). 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(13). 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(14). 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(15). Marriage has declined(16), but cohabitation has risen(17). The overall rate of household formation rose only slightly during the period in which under-occupancy has boomed(18).

This appears to leave just one likely explanation: money. My guess, though I can find no research or figures either to support or disprove it, 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”(19).

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.

While reducing under-occupancy can’t solve the crisis of provision by itself, and there will still be a need for new construction, 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. I suggest a new concept: housing footprints. Your housing footprint is the number of bedrooms divided by the number of people in the household. Like ecological footprints, it reminds us that the resource is finite, and that if some people take more than they need, others are left with less than they need.

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(20). 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 by the charity which runs the project, help elderly home-owners with shopping, cleaning, cooking, gardening or driving(21,22). 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. I can understand why neither the government nor the oppostition dares to think about it: none of the major parties wants to pick a fight with wealthy householders. So it’s up to us to give them no choice, by turning under-occupation into an issue they can’t avoid. It cannot be left to the market, as the market works for the rich.

References:

  1. The government says that 118,000 new homes were built in 2009. The total addition to the housing stock was 129,000 homes. It projects an average annual increase in the number of households between 2008 and 2033 of 232,000. DCLG, 2nd December 2010. Housing and Planning Statistics 2010. http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/corporate/statistics/housingplanningstatistics2010
  2. Department for Communities and Local Government, 2nd December 2010. Housing and Planning Statistics 2010. http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/corporate/statistics/housingplanningstatistics2010
  3. As above.
  4. Office for National Statistics and Department of Energy and Climate Change, 2010. Annual Report on Fuel Poverty Statistics 2010. http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/Statistics/fuelpoverty/610-annual-fuel-poverty-statistics-2010.pdf
  5. As above, page 33.
  6. You can find a fuller definition here:
    Ed Harding, July 2007. Older People’s Housing and Under-Occupancy, page 4. International Longevity Centre. http://www.ilcuk.org.uk/files/pdf_pdf_28.pdf
  7. Office for National Statistics and Department of Energy and Climate Change, 2010. Annual Report on Fuel Poverty Statistics 2010, page 33. http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/Statistics/fuelpoverty/610-annual-fuel-poverty-statistics-2010.pdf
  8. Department for Communities and Local Government, October 2010. English Housing Survey: Household report 2008–09, Page 27. http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/statistics/pdf/1750765.pdf
  9. As above, page 27.
  10. Department for Communities and Local Government, September 2009. Fifteen years of the Survey of English Housing: 1993 – 94 to 2007– 08, page 6. http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/statistics/pdf/1346239.pdf
  11. Department for Communities and Local Government, October 2010, as above, Page 27.
  12. Office for National Statistics, 4th December 2009. Households and families.
    http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=2325
  13. As above.
  14. Office for National Statistics, 21st July 2010. Births and Deaths in England and Wales
    2009. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/bdths0710.pdf
  15. Office for National Statistics, 28th January 2010. Divorces. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=170
  16. Office for National Statistics, 11th February 2010. Marriages. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=322
  17. Office for National Statistics, Summer 2009. Estimating the cohabiting population. Population Trends 136. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/articles/population_trends/PT136EstimatingCohabitation.pdf
  18. Department for Communities and Local Government, September 2009. As above, Chart 18, p24.
  19. Ed Harding, July 2007. Older People’s Housing and Under-Occupancy. International Longevity Centre. http://www.ilcuk.org.uk/files/pdf_pdf_28.pdf
  20. Directgov, no date given. Council Tax discounts, exemptions and financial help. http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/HomeAndCommunity/YourlocalcouncilandCouncilTax/CouncilTax/DG_10037422
  21. http://homeshare.org/uk.aspx
  22. http://www.naaps.org.uk/en/homeshare/

14 Responses to “Home Rule”

  1. Adammz

    Dear PRI,

    Whenever Mr Manbiot writes I scan a few sentences and try my hardest not to puke up, then move on quickly.

    I write this to suggest the Manbiot writings are some distance away from the permaculture modus operandi of looking for solutions, and I really hope you guys are not paying this character for his reportings on political bandits. As Permaculturists, we are very much aware that Governments the world over do not care too much for the wellbeing of peoples, and we should really be focusing on solutions, not more political wind stirring.

    Your following story on Earthen Housing and the eco building course at Jordan was perfect, maybe Mr Manbiot should rock up down there and chip in a bit, pin one of his stories to a 50 cal at the checkpoint on the dead sea highway.

    All the best,
    Adam

    Reply
  2. Michael

    Well as a parent trying to get accommodation for my daughter in Sydney for University I think this would be a great idea. I imagine we have the same problem of under occupation here as well.

    Reply
  3. sims

    @adam, how can you say that this article is far from permaculture. In my way good permaculture is a wide range of things. The stupidest ting permaculture can do is to isolate and made the hole thinking narrow. That would make for a few disipels but not a big movement, that actually can do a difference.

    Reply
  4. Thomas Fischbacher

    Adammz,

    I think George has some valid point with what he writes. What to do about the issue is, of course, another question. But evidently the only part of the article you seem interested in is the two words that come after “by” in the subject classification line. I get the curious impression that you quite likely wouldn’t have had any complaint would the same article have been written by a different author…

    Reply
  5. ch

    Hmm.

    Here lies a latent tension in the permaculture community.

    Mr. Monbiot is edging up to socialism. That scares some people. What roles ought capitalism and government, competition and cooperation play in a sustainable future? I don’t know, it’s okay if we don’t agree on everything.

    Well, in the end, either the worst case scenario will happen: We humans will ravage Earth for a while until we go extinct and take a large chunk of life’s diversity with us, then, in about 15 minutes of geological time, Earth will restore itself sans humans.

    Or, hopefully: We humans will learn to reincorporate ourselves into ecosystems with permaculture and survive long-term as part of Gaia.

    Reply
  6. Thomas Fischbacher

    Hello ch,

    you do have of course to keep in mind that pretty much any political perspective that would be regarded as “moderate” in Europe would be seen as far left-wing in the US. So, some of that may be just a sociocultural issue.

    It’s pretty evident some people can’t stand Monbiot – I even get the impression that he might be in the un-enviable position of having a swarm of dung flies swarming around him wherever he goes. I consider that quite inappropriate – there are many issues on which I don’t share his views, but he is able to reason out things coherently, and also able to listen. I actually like to occasionally read his thought-provoking articles here.

    Quick comment on the question what role capitalism, cooperation, and competition could/should play in a sustainable future. As far as I can see, there are two or three major things that are wrong with the way the “capitalism” game is played right now. The first is that capital is not tied to an ethical famework that determines how it is to be used – but there are legal frameworks to achieve just that, in particular the trust. The second is that in present day capitalism, the market does not properly reflect social and environmental reality. By the way – the S.U. probably crashed because the market did not properly reflect economic reality, so this should serve as a warning to us. Correcting this issue seems trickier to me. A third issue is that we allow markets to become self-referential. Bluntly, the market won’t work as an equilibriating tool if no one acts because everyone trusts in the market to sort things out. In particular with respect to peak oil, we have seen a lot of “don’ worry, no need to do anything, for the market will take care of it” complacency from professional economists – and we *will* want to kick our backs for listening to them for so long. Magical thinking par excellence. A more insidious issue with self-referentiality in the market game occurs when propaganda is involved – i.e. when a participant invests economic effort into twisting data to their advantage. I hardly can imagine anything with a greater potential for damage.

    Ad “competition” vs “cooperation”: the Permaculture Designer’s Manual presents the issue in such a way that competition would be a problem in itself – and I think I remember Holmgren told the story in one of his books of an Eskimo tribe who killed missionaries who tried to show them how to play soccer, for they considered the very concept of competition so disrupting and dangerous for their culture of cooperation that is so necessary in an insanely harsh environment. Actually, I think there really is some value in competition, and the trick is to use this concept appropriately as a design element. There is a world of a difference between competition a la “survival of the fittest” as an excuse to subdue (e.g. in the social darwinist sense) and competition as in “dance competition”. Such competitions are all about exploring the limits of human potential by leaving it to participants to set the bar – ever higher. (Of course, this can become quite aberrant – if professional bike sports a la “tour de france” means participants have to receive calories via direct bloodstream infusions as nobody could eat that much food, I think something has gone seriously wrong, say.)

    Considering specifically permaculture, I can well see a certain potential for “design competitions” – in particular if the alternative were to have a dozen designers form a committee and have endless meetings and consensus decisions. It may be much more advantageous in such a situation to let designers work in teams of up to three, submit designs, and then elect the most convincing one. If the problem of transient fads/fashions that may easily form can be avoided, I would expect that such an approach would quite soon lead to a situation where designs are expected to contain quantitative mechanical load analyses for earthworks, references to (and maybe copies of) relevant research articles, risk analysis, and an overview over the market potential of various products that can be obtained with the corresponding design.

    In the field of computer security, people did learn from the fiasco of the internet protocol encryption extension standard (IPSec) and tackled the design of a successor to DES encryption by having a competition – which resulted in the Rijndael algorithm being adopted as the new AES standard. I am fairly sure a committee never would have produced a result that would have been as sound as the outcome of this process.

    Reply
  7. Adammz

    Dear Readers,

    Since I somehow started this round of debate, I shall try to embark on finishing it, via succinct explanation and attempting to answer some questions asked of me. Then I’m off to grow some veges.

    The political housing debate has nothing to do with permaculture because permaculture just realises there is an issue and builds houses. The problem is the soultion.

    The real essence of my comment was if we debate we get no where, if we build the politicians will suddenly pull their heads up from squabbling and thieving and race up front to be in the news press photo with you making it their idea. Ignore ‘em, its the only sensible tactic.

    Political debate bores me senseless, because it is senseless. In a true community we do need some sensible debate, and it becomes sensible when those debating realise they do not rule over those who couldn’t be bothered debating. Do you see the sense?

    Mr Monbiot’s idea is not being debated by me, it’s a good idea, so is putting wind generators on all the tall skyscrapers, but does anyone do it? For those who think the housing idea presented is good and are prepared to live by it then I know a family of one mum and dad and 11 kids, genuine refugees from Sri Lanka whom if you give me your address I’ll send em round to live with you. easy.

    Essentially a man with a wheelbarrow full of potatoes is richer than a man with a billion insurance company shares,,,and a man with a wheelbarrow full of potatoes is far more richer than one with a folder full of political essays. Some folk pay $1500 to hear this at a permaculture course, I’m offering it for free.

    For Mr Fischbacher, I have no problem with Mr Monbiot, and I’m glad throughout the sequence of these writings personal respect has been maintained, its just his writings make me puke. I believe him to maybe be a professional writer, so he has to live with that. Essentially he may even be smug that his essay got a response either positively or negatively, good for him.

    For ch, I too look forward to the day when gaia decides to click her fingers and wipe it all out. It seems the most sensible option maybe.

    I’m out now,
    All the best, Adam

    Reply
  8. Thomas Fischbacher

    Adammz,

    three quick comments:

    (1) on politics – I can see why many people are disinterested in politics as a result of disillusionment. However, withdrawing from the political sphere means leaving politics to the politicians which in turn these days means: the lobbyists. Isn’t it obvious that if we don’t pay attention to what laws get passed and how, they will be written in favour of exploiters who of course would like to see the law to help them and hinder their competition? I sometimes get the impression that dumb politicians are a massive advantage for these lobbyists, as they are a very useful distraction from those things that really matter – and make people not pay attention to politics.

    If you listen closely to Bill Mollison, you will find that there are a number of quite detailed instructions in what he says about a design approach towards working with politicians. An important idea is that whenever you do something sane, you should talk about it, get press coverage, invite some politician as a representative, exchange a few flowers, have pictures taken showing smiles and handshakes and ensure it would be an extremely embarrassing thing for them to try and un-do what you did – even if they secretly would love to and actually are fuming about the whole thing.

    (2) Ad “because permaculture just realises there is an issue and builds houses” – I’m afraid it’s not as simple as that, for one cannot just change one thing. Depending on how one does it, more houses may well mean more space to be heated – hence more pollution – and less space to grow food, say. It’s not that straightforward an issue.

    (3) Incidentally, no one sane in their mind would put wind turbines up high rise buildings, for two very basic reasons: (1) turbulence – unless you are the highest structure far and wide, you can expect wind to be very irregular and unstable, and (2) vibrations. A building does not respond too well to having such a thing up on its roof.

    Reply
  9. David Holmgren

    this issue of under occupation is one that I have been speaking about in my retrofitting the suburbs talks since 2003. The positive permaculture angle on this issue is that any household audit we do of ourselves or others should cover this issue. On top of this we need to consider hours of occupation/day and functions performed at home. From a permaculture perspective, the smaller our houses, the larger and more diverse our household, the more functions we perform in the household economy and the hours we spend at home rather than in the car and using public facilities, then the more resilient and lower impact our way of life. How we adapt our behaviour to make better use of existing housing stock (and everything else) is more potent in adapting to the energy descent future than building cool new stuff.

    Reply
  10. Craig Mackintosh PRI Editor

    I agree David. This is one of the reasons I get a bit annoyed when people keep talking about eco-villages, and so on. While it sounds nice at face value, the reality is we cannot take all the residents of Manhattan and Tokyo, etc., and shift them all into idylic little eco-villages. Aside from land redistribution issues, the energy/resources involved in such an endeavour (more than half the world’s population now live in densely packed urban environments) would make for a rather ridiculous energy audit. We must work with what we have, retrofitting and making better use of it.

    Reply
  11. Adammz

    However, I give a blog about what Mr Holmgren and Mr Mackintosh are saying above, I just didn’t have their finese with words to say the same thing.

    Reply
  12. greg

    wise words Mr holmgren and interesting article..
    we have been working in the built environment development field for 8 years as “sustainability” consultants ( for lack of a better word)..the industry is well aware of his.. but becauses of the speculative nature of the industry their is more money if building bigger.. in the west we need more smaller households for a changing demographic and lifestyle.
    retrofitting is part of that..but a lot of stock are so poorly designed and aged that they are beyond retrofit..
    their is a place for all measures..including eco-villages.. especially establishing them in brown field sites.

    Reply

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