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.