Some really interesting comments on my last post, deserving of a new post. A well-briefed and articulate "Anonymous" lays into my argument, basically buying the Barker/NHPAU/New Labour line that we should be building 3 million new homes by 2020.
He/she writes I'd say there are some clear signs that some people need more housing in the UK - high housing costs relative to incomes, instances of overcrowding, street homelessness and sofa surfing...
• The high cost of private housing is/was caused by easy credit and favourable tax status. Sometime in the 1970s, housing became "an investment opportunity." The truth of this is demonstrated by the Irish property bubble which saw a phenomenal increase in housebuilding activity, accompanied by a huge surge in prices. People were building homes there because there was money to be made, not because there was a shortage of houses. It's all come crashing down now and there are apparently estates of empty new homes in the Irish Midlands with not a buyer in sight.
• Overcrowding. Relative to what? Sure there is overcrowding but it's nothing compared to our Victorian forebears, or to many third world countries today. And there are many more examples of undercrowding (is that even a word?): single older people living in large family homes that they have paid for and don't have to move on from. Both are bad uses of resources. Think of the number of empty bedrooms in this country which are lucky if they get slept in more than once a year. How many? My guess is many millions.
• Street homelesness. This surely is a litmus test of housing demand. These are people with nowhere to live at all. But if government stats are to be believed, the number of homeless people has fallen dramatically in the past few years. Hardly evidence of an undersupply of housing.
So my beef is this. There is actually no way of telling whether we have too much or too little housing, anymore than we can know if we have too many or too few roads. What we have is a housing stock of around 23 million homes, and some rather poor ways of allocating them across a population of around 65 million. Obviously, if we increase the stock to 25 or 26 million homes, there will be more room for everyone (unless of course the population increases by five or ten million), but this isn't necessarily a good use of scarce resources when so much of our existing stock is in a poor state of repair and/or is under occupied.
There are also sustainability issues here as well. However close to zero carbon these new homes might be, they are still going to add to the carbon output of the UK. In today's Times (paywalled, so I won't give a link) Conservative peer Simon Wolfson continues to trot out the usual pro-development line without so much as a word about the environmental impact all these new homes will have. His idea is to compulsorarily purchase bits of dull farmland and hand them over to "independent bodies made up of leading property developers who would be given a free hand to build the best they can." He's obviously been watching The Normans. He goes on "At a time of economic woe this type of project would create wealth, jobs and growth — not to mention new income streams for a Government that could do with the revenue."
But this is precisely the sort of lazy thinking that created the credit crunch in the first place. It's Labours eco towns, only stripped of the eco. It sounds just like the Irish Bubble Mk 2. The dumbest of dumb growth. And all in the name of "an insatiable demand for new housing."