If ever a meme was unravelling fast, it's the idea that we are suffering from a "housing shortage." I first starting questioning this assumption back in 2007, and have re-visited the issue from time to time, although for much of that time I felt I was pissing in the wind.
But recently, I have heard others questioning this long-held orthodoxy too and it now shows signs of going viral. Graham Norwood's blog Property Newshound this morning carries a piece called Figures That Don't Add up. And David Ireland at the Empty Homes Agency wrote a brilliant piece on his blog called 5 Big Housing Lies and why the Public Doesn't Buy the Housing Crisis.
It's not that we have enough homes, it's that there is really no way of telling what enough is, and all the measurements of housing demand are never anything more than extrapolating past trends into the future. Let's see how this works.
Back in 1919, there were only about 5 or 6 million homes in the UK. Today there are around 24 or 25 million. The population has gone up from around 35 million back then to 61 million today. So in 1919 there were 5.8 people for every house; today it's 2.5 people for every house. What does that tell you? That we have more space? Yes. That we are richer? Yes. That there is a trend towards smaller households? No argument with that.
But the housing shortage argument is largely based on saying that this trend towards smaller households is the cause of all this housebuilding, rather than the result of it. And that, as we are "demanding" to live in smaller and smaller households, we must therefore build more homes to meet this demand. But there is a debate here to be had about whether we really are all demanding to live alone, because that is what more and more of us seem to be doing (myself included).
And another point worth making here. This concentration on the number of new homes being built obscures other related issues, namely the size of the average home (is it growing or shrinking?) and the quality of the existing stock. There is a huge amount of low-level building work going on all over the country with people extending their homes, and this greatly adds to the overall amenity of the housing stock, and it ought to be measured as well and summed up to together with the amount of new housing. In other words, what really matters is not the simple number of homes in existence but the overall floor area available per person, and the quality of the housing. These would be much more telling statistics which would inform us about the state of the nation's housing, but they are not published because a) they are not known, and b) there is no lobby campaigning for them to be improved.