Sunday, 26 April 2015

Are we building the wrong sort of housing?

Whatever we think of the Coalition government's benefit reforms, one thing they have revealed is how short we are of one-bedroom property. Both the limit on housing benefit for under 35s and the 'spare room supplement' have acted to remind us that the fastest growing household type is the single person. Later marriage, single parenthood, divorce and longevity all mean more people living on their own. Single person households now make up 28% of UK households.

So why is it then that the house-building businesses want to build family housing? At the recent examination in public of Bradford's 'core strategy' the sessions on Wharfedale and Airedale were stuffed with developers arguing for more housing - 3-, 4- and 5-bed family homes - on greenfield sites in those valleys. There was no clamour for apartments or smaller units more suited to single people and especially the single elderly.

This might be a problem. Here's some thoughts from the USA (where the cities are increasingly filled with single households - 71% in Washington DC, 57% in New York):

The rise of singles calls in particular for more micro housing: apartments the size of studios or even smaller, and "accessory dwelling units" (think in-law cottages or garage apartments) that might be built in the back yard of existing homes. It also calls for a different model of housing where, for instance, four singles might share a communal living space adjacent to their separate units instead of each having their own living room.

The problem over there - and increasingly over here too - is that the regulatory environment (not just planning although that's the main culprit) makes it very difficult to build anything other than family housing. If we are to meet housing needs therefore, we need to escape from the current objective assessment of need methodologies since they are not taking sufficient note of that need's demographics. Just as importantly, changing our strategy to focus on hidden households (most of which are single people) means that the need to take vast slabs of open country for house-building is reduced.

None of this removes the need for planning reform but it demonstrates that the current system is designed to meet the housing needs of traditional families whereas demography tells us we need to move in a different direction. To return to Wharfedale, those family homes the developers are keen to build will sell - filling up with people moving out from Leeds and Bradford. And the housebuilders wedded to a 'buy-build-sell' development model will continue to prefer high land values sitting on their balance sheets (it reduces the competition and prevent new market entry). But inside the cities the homes those people moving to Wharfedale leave behind present a problem - feeding a private rental market but finding those unwanted family homes ever more difficult to rent.



Anonymous said...

Near my house there is a supermarket. In the two floors above the supermarket there used to be the HQ of a building firm. The space lay empty for decades with only occasional attempts at usage, but recently a forward-looking developer turned it into all manner of reasonably-priced single bedroom units (i.e. from small 'studios' into proper flats). They sold like hot cakes.

It isn't just planning, it's the running of services in a building like this that is a problem, plus meeting fire regulations etc etc. These issues would be easy to meet with prefabricated, pre-configured, units - more or less how many hotels are built.

Curmudgeon said...

I don't think anyone, apart from the desperately cash-strapped, really wants to live in one-bed flats. Most people will want to have friends or family members staying from time to time. I'd also say that most house buyers want a garden and at least one off-road parking space.

Why not let the market build the houses people want, rather than those the planners think they should have?