Everyone agrees that there is a housing crisis in this country. Most people think this is a crisis of supply and many trace the origins of the crisis back to the 1980s. For example, the journalist James Meek, in a much-discussed essay on the subject in the London Review of Books, argues that the Thatcher government “artificially raised market rents by choking off supply—by making it impossible for councils to replace [the houses sold off under the “Right to Buy” scheme].” We’re paying for those policy choices today, Meek suggests.
Danny Dorling, a professor of geography at Oxford and the author of several books on social inequality, tells a rather different story of what he calls the “great housing disaster” in his new book “All That Is Solid”. I spoke to Dorling about the book last week.
DD: I look at the number of rooms in houses rather than the actual number of buildings. I should say, though, that I’d be very happy with building upwards in London and in expanding out in to the Green Belt in parts of the south-east of England. Where there’s inordinate demand, I think you should try to meet that demand. So I’m not against building. But I do think we could house ourselves much better given what we’ve already got. Increasingly, our problem is that we’re using housing less and less efficiently. And that’s a great waste of resources.
JD: So under-use and under-occupation is, in your view, a very significant part of the problem here?
Yes. After the 2011 consensus, which was the first one to count bedrooms, the problem becomes really stark. Our ratio of people to rooms has never been lower. Yet we’ve built an awful number of extra rooms—we’ve built into attics, we’ve built on to garages. This has been people trying to solve the housing problem themselves. They build these extensions on their property when their family is getting to its maximum size, and that’s part of the reason why we now have so much unused housing. The kids do actually leave—they don’t all stay at home.
For you, then, whilst the problem of supply is real, it’s actually a tributary of a much deeper problem—namely, inequality?
The housing crisis is one of the repercussions of growing income inequality. Income inequality begins to grow at the start of the 1980s.…