Move to bigger homes will store up problems

Copyright: David Lawson

First published: Property Week May 2008

Boris Johnson won an unlikely elevation to mayor of London by concentrating on easy targets: the congestion charge, bendy buses, crime and shortage of family homes. Tackling the first three will be a doddle compared with stemming the tide of small apartments.

   To many people – including ambitious politicians – a ‘family home’ is a house and garden, which are said to be in short supply as planning policies and economics have conspired to pump up the supply of flats. Tough controls on greenfield development have meant higher density levels set by guidance such as PPG3 then PPS3 to make up for loss of potential homes through more intense use of brownfield and urban sites. This drastically reduced the option of traditional homes and gardens.  The rise of buy to let has also changed the focus of developers from families to investors with a preference for small apartments appealing to young professionals. In 1996 just over 15% of homes being built in England were flats. Ten years later, that had soared to almost 50%.

    Johnson could call on planning techniques introduced by his predecessor to influence output. Ken Livingstone demanded 30% to 50% social housing as the price for development, arguing that markets were not reflecting London’s real needs by excluding those unable to meet soaring prices.  Johnson will have an even stronger hand, as the government transferred greater planning powers to the mayor this year.   But he may not be able to rely on merely handing the task to social landlords. They, too, have moved with the times, with 80% of homes now having fewer than three bedrooms.

  Moves to larger homes will not address the real problem anyway, and could create a bigger headache in years to come. Steve Wilson, planning director of consultant White Young Green, says the Greater London Plan provides little evidence for shortage of larger homes. In fact it indicates the opposite. The key problem is that people are rattling around in homes too big for their needs.  Around 40% of housing is under-occupied, he told the 2008 Henry Stewart Planning Briefing. London is clogged with ‘empty nesters’ – couples in homes with three or more bedrooms whose children have grown and left.

 Other towns and cities face similar problems, yet the trend among local plans being drawn up across the country is to move more strongly towards family homes – often interpreted as larger houses with gardens. This is being further fuelled by the sight of tower blocks in cities like Leeds standing empty because of over-ambitious buy to let investors.

  But bigger homes will mean fewer homes. It also runs counter to demographic trends which show that while the number of households is increasing, fuelling an insatiable demand for  housing, the average number of people living in each home is falling.  Young people leave their parents earlier every year to set up their own homes and are having fewer of their own children. Soaring divorce rates also lead to single homes being split. This is why more new homes are required than might seem justified by population growth.

  The average household long ago dropped below the familiar couple plus 2.4 children. It contains barely 2.4 people under each roof and is forecast to be less than 2.1 in 25 years.  Those fractions have an enormous impact on the type of homes required, says Wilson. The increased number of flats being created reflects this change in demand, with developers building homes people want to buy.

    That does not mean he objects to family homes. He just sees them differently to the dewy-eyed visions of campaigning politicians. Children can thrive in a small home – even a flat - if they are in the right surroundings. Families can be comfortable with less interior space as long as they have enough amenity areas around these developments.

  Policies being drawn up in local plans should not demonise small homes in favour of larger property with gardens but create a mix which suites the way the population is likely to develop. But these need the right quality of communal and amenity spaces.  If the ‘family-friendly’ semi-and-garden is allowed to dominate, pressure will rise for development on green fields and the hidden problem of under-occupation will be carried through the generations. It will re-emerge with a vengeance in a decade or so as children born today leave to find their own homes.

  More focus should be placed on creating a mix of housing in each development. It should be based on analysis of demand through Strategic Housing Market Assessments being carried out as part of new Local Development Frameworks. But these assessments must look beyond current demand to demographic projections of future likely needs. The worst solution will be to impose simplistic targets for creating larger homes to meet short-term political gain, storing up problems for future politicians to untangle. 


Average household Size [England]

Yr                                2004                2021                2026                2029

Persons                        2.35                 2.15                 2.11                 2.09

Dwelling type [%]

                                    Flats                 Terrace            Semi                 Detached

South East                    18                    23                    29                    29

England                        19                    26                    32                    23

Housebuilding [England]

Type [%]

                                                Houses                         Flats

1996/7                                     84                                16

2006/7                                     53                                47

Size [%]

                                                1-2 bed                        3+ bed

1996/7                                     37                                62

2006/7                                     53                                47

Tenure [%]

                                                Private                                      Social

                                    1-2bed             3+ bed             1-2 bed            3+ bed

1996/7                         32                    68                    54                    36

2006/7                         49                    51                    80                    20       

[Source: DCLG and White Young Green]