The trouble with a housing crisis is that it unfolds in slow motion, over a generation, so we risk acting too late. In this post I’ve used historical and international comparisons to highlight the scale of the catastrophe we’re creating.
The bottom-line is that Britain is now experiencing the highest population growth in its entire history. Yet we are meeting this need with the lowest peacetime housebuilding rates in nearly a hundred years.
The chart below compares housebuilding with population growth, decade by decade*, for the last 150 years, and shows the yawning gap between demand and supply that is now opening up.
The previous peak decade for population growth in Britain was the end of the 19th Century, with 3.97 million additional people. Although household size was much higher then**, an unprecedented level of housebuilding still took place. The Victorian population growth saw the building of many of Britain’s great towns and cities. One in five of our homes today date from that era.
In the 1930s, as population growth recovered from the First World War, so did housebuilding, and much of Britain’s established suburbia dates from this second period of major housebuilding.
Then, in the decades after WWII came the baby boom, and the third great wave of housebuilding, fuelled also by reconstruction, new towns, and public investment, leaving us with much of our current social housing stock.
Now, in the last decade, population growth has surpassed all these previous peaks – adding an astonishing 4.27 million people. That is 7.5% higher than in the 1890s, double the population growth during the 1930s housing boom, and 60% higher than the baby boom 1960s. The same high growth is forecast again for the current decade.
At no previous time in the entire history of these islands have we seen the population grow by over 4 million people in a decade. We should be witnessing the greatest and most concerted housebuilding effort ever, not the lowest peacetime build rates since the 1920s.
To put this in an international perspective, take a look at the density of population growth. This is not a measure many will have considered before, but for spatial planners it ought to be of great concern as it shows the intensity of development and land allocations we need across the country.
In the last decade Britain added around 16 people per square kilometre, and for England the figure was over 26 people per square kilometre.
Not only is that a record for this country, but it is high by global standards too, as shown in the table below.
In other words the world’s population grew by 800 million in the last decade and these extra people were disproportionately concentrated in Britain.
Setting aside some special cases like small island or city states, this measure puts Britain, or particular England, amongst the group of fastest-growing major countries in the world. Nothing like the explosive growth of countries in the Indian sub continent, certainly, but a higher concentration of population growth than many other countries, from China and Columbia to Tanzania and Turkey.
We should expect to be mobilising JCBs and bricklayers on a massive scale, building or growing the new great cities of the 21st century. Instead we constrain growth with Green Belts wherever demand is highest, and fight over every last scrap of 5-year housing supply, then under-deliver even on that.
Britain’s population growth is a good thing (if you can dare to say that people are a good thing), and can help solve many of our economic ills. But if we don’t build the new homes it requires, then we turn a success into a problem. We have room to build, but somehow collectively turn a blind eye to this extraordinary need of historic proportions.
The consequences are already being felt – the 2011 Census found home ownership down, while renting and overcrowding were up. As house prices exclude more and more young people from ownership, and rents force more and more to share, we are conspiring against the next generation, and the human costs will only continue to grow unless we start to get serious about housing.
* NB For simplicity I’ve labelled these as decades but in fact they are “Census decades”, so for example data for “1960s” actually represents 1961-1970. The data comes from a variety of sources, principally ONS, NRS, DCLG, UN and Vision of Britain.
** Of the many caveats that could be added to this analysis, perhaps the most important is that population growth is not the same as household formation or housing demand. Over time households have got smaller, and our space expectations have grown (the extreme overcrowding of some Victorian slum-housing is now thankfully very rare), meaning that housing must more than keep pace with population. However this can become a circular argument – our current tight housing supply has actually forced up household size, but does that really represent a fall in demand? That’s why in this analysis I’ve gone back to the simple fundamentals of population growth.