I’m getting a little fed up of hearing about the “need” for more housing. In our area there is an outstanding “demand” for housing and also a plan to provide around 15% more housing over the next 14 years. The national population estimates are that the UK population is anticipated to grow at 0.8% each year over that time. Before you cry “immigration” this is only one of the contributing factors. The others are that there was an immediate boom in population after the Second World War which is only now reaping the benefits of improved healthcare and the resultant increase in life expectancy. There is also the natural increase in a successful society as birth rate exceeds death rate. Net migration is the final factor in the mix. There was a nett exodus of the population from 1970 until 1982 but from then onwards (and markedly from the early 1990s) nett migration has been significantly towards immigration.
So, increase in population means more housing surely? Well not quite. In 1961 the average household contained 3.1 people whereas the 2011 census revealed a current average of 2.4 people per household in Great Britain. This means that for every 1m of population in 2011 we need 94,000 more houses (almost 30% more) than we needed in 1961. In other words, if we lived the same way we did in 1961 we wouldn’t need all the new houses. In my way of thinking we should at least consider the causal factors and think about whether we can reduce demand as well as increasing supply.
Of course the reasons for the demand for new houses are many and complex but they will include the increase in divorce, unmarried motherhood, employment mobility, ease of mortgaging, cost of housing, social norms, welfare state provisions, numbers and accommodation of elderly people, and emigration trends. These are important issues that affect the quality of our life in Britain and yet it seems that politicians barely comment on them.
There is a more fundamental question about whether population growth is a good thing in the first place. In my view there is no right answer. On one end of the scale there is a Malthusian argument about the scarce resources having to be spread ever thinner by the growing population. On the other is the need to find labour to fuel a growing and successful economy. Few would argue with the stories of Australia and the United States in welcoming huge numbers of immigrants to become successful economies and world powers. It’s impossible to overlook the fates of the indigenous people in either case too. I dare say there were cries of “we’re full” at various stages along the way.
One of the factors is that we are becoming less social in our way of living and house builders are building smaller homes. The average size of a new home in 2013 was 76 sq m, the smallest in Europe. In the 1920s the average home was 153 sq m. Maybe, just maybe, we are in a vicious circle. The very houses the builders are building for us are making us unhappy. To solve the problem we need to move out.. to another house. At the same time house buying has become aspirational. From something which was functional and a sign of being able to make your way in the world, houses are statement investments. Lots of people are living in houses which are too big for them these days – the mere possibility of a “bedroom tax” betrays this. Our expectation is that we will all live in our own detached house – away from our parents and we will bring our own children up to expect the same. They say it takes a village to raise a child. In no way am I advocating a return to the slum tenements of the early part of the 20th century but the ability to share living space is something worth revisiting. If we carry on at the current rate we will lose all our green space and still need more. If we can’t live together in houses maybe there are other places where we can socialise? Sadly pubs and church attendances are both in decline? The consequences of our inability to share space is that loneliness, particularly amongst the elderly, is a growing problem. There is also a greater fear of crime even though crime itself is no worse than it has ever been. Rather than use the eyes and ears of the herd to protect each other we are reliant on newspapers and other media to tell us what is going on, or what sells newspapers! Humans have always been social animals that naturally form into communities and our current way of living is making us unhappy and less in control of our destiny.
There is no easy answer; these are fundamental issues which are far more important to us as a nation than EU membership of interest rates and yet our Governments are scared to talk about or tackle them. The last attempt was with John Major’s hypocritical Victorian Values aspirations which were shot down as soon as they were uttered. Tony Blair’s Social Justice was never really fleshed out in human behavioural terms but rather in welfare policy.
In my view immigration may be the solution rather than the problem. Europeans and Asians are far more social in their outlook. Back in the day my relatives made their way to other parts of the country to earn money for their families back at home and yet today we are surrounded by headlines which criticise those who do the same. Our immigrant families live in larger households than we do sometimes out of necessity but also because they have not lost the ability to share and live in close proximity with lots of other people. They are more religious and more caring for the elderly. We could do well to observe our new neighbours and learn from them. Ironically, maybe a growth in population will actually help us get back to a more content and secure way of living, and protect some of our green spaces at the same time.