Too few homes, in the wrong place

Housing and Population Growth Cartogram
With such a shortage of housing it matters more than ever that what we do build is where it is needed most. Here I’ve mapped what’s happening across Britain, and the results are not encouraging.

First, a word about the maps themselves. These are “cartograms” – maps that have been distorted in proportion to population. Cities are stretched, and countryside squashed until any two equal areas represent the same number of people.

This sacrifices accurate physical geography for a much better picture of human geography. It avoids the problem of small urban districts – where most of us actually live – not showing up compared to large rural districts.

So, these cartograms even things out. To help navigate the unfamiliar shapes, I’ve outlined some of the emerging city regions.

UK cartogram City Regions3

If the shapes show where people live now, the colour in the maps at the top show how that’s changing. The first map at the top is population growth, with almost everywhere growing, including cities such as Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Coventry. But the dominant picture is of strong growth around London and the South East.

The second map shows how the number of homes is growing, on the same colour scale. What is striking is how much more evenly-spread the growth of housing is – without the extremes of blue and red. There are areas with falling population where housing has still grown a little, and there are areas with surging population where housing has also grown. A little.

The 50 fastest-growing local authorities have populations increasing by an average of 1.7% a year, but housing stock growing at only half this rate (0.84%). Picking out just the ten fastest growing areas, population growth averaged 2.3% a year, but the number of homes still only grew by an average of 0.84% a year.

Not only are we building too few homes, those that we are building are not where they’re most needed. I should be clear I’m not suggesting that too many homes are being built outside the South East – there is population growth almost everywhere and a need for significant numbers of homes in most metropolitan areas across the UK. The problem is that the areas with the greatest need are not managing to deliver many more homes than the areas with more moderate need.

It would be wrong to believe this represents some kind of helpful “rebalancing” of growth across the country. The last map shows where jobs growth is1, and this makes clear why the population of the south east is growing so rapidly. People want to be where the jobs are, and if housing shortages price people out of those cities, the economy as a whole will lose out.

Jobs Growth cartogram

We need to invest in cities across the country so more of them can succeed, but the surest fix for Britain’s productivity problems would be housing that allowed those who want to move to high-productivity cities to do so.


Note on Data and Sources
The maps show average annual percentage growth over the last couple of years – in almost all cases from mid-2012 to mid-2014 – at local authority level. The data comes from the Office for National Statistics, Scottish Government Statistics Group and Statistics for Wales. Population is residence-based and jobs are workplace-based. Note that housing growth here is based on changes in net dwelling stock (not gross housebuilding) therefore takes account of conversions and demolitions.

1 Caution is needed when using a population cartogram for jobs, as this “under-represents” commuter destinations, particularly the City of London, and “over-represents” dormitory towns.

PS. See also coverage of this research in The Independent


4 thoughts on “Too few homes, in the wrong place

  1. Hello – interesting article.

    I wonder however how much of the shortage is due to homes being bought for investment and stay empty either permanently or most of the year. I read somewhere 70% of the buyers in London are from Asia, and with over two million millionaires, china would have a never ending crowd of people wanting to diversify their wealth into what is considered a safe if not high return investment…

    • Hi, thanks for the comment, it’s a point the press has talked about a lot so it’s interesting to discuss. My view is that “buy-to-leave” investment is a very localised issue in just a few parts of central London, and is insignificant in scale compared to the wider demand. Most homes in London are owned by UK residents, and those bought by overseas investors generally end up rented out to locals. Levels of long-term vacancy in London are actually very low, and falling. Even if we could somehow force every vacant home in London to be occupied, it would only meet a few months worth of demand. You might be interested in a post I wrote about population trends in Kensington and Chelsea, which touched on this issue:

  2. Great blog Barney. Keep the articles coming if you have time!

    My observation looking at your housing cartogram is the doughnut of high growth beyond the green belt (looks like Peterborough, Rugby, Milton Keynes but possibly further).
    We see ever increasing commuting distances into London, which are partly subsidised by regulated rail fares. This requires ever increasing rail investment – every new job in London needing a corresponding seat on a train (or tiny space to stand in practice), which dictates more spending on longer trains for the peaks (which are then empty for the rest of the day). Peak rail capacity schemes are rarely financially positive, because the fares don’t cover the expensive infrastructure work needed. Add this to the time lost to commuting, which could be spent more productively, plus the stress, and there is a huge cost of this poor planning.
    There is plenty of space both within inner London and parts of the green belt to build houses nearer to jobs. A walk down the Old Kent Road or the vast swathes of underdeveloped docklands reveals this. Some people will always want bigger houses further away, but most are simply pushed out by unaffordable housing.
    If we want an extra 50,000 jobs in London next year, there needs to be a commensurate number of homes provided. Should they be provided in Southwark or Suffolk?

    • Thanks Liam. Definitely lots more coming when I get time.

      I agree the Green Belt (and general house price pressure) has pushed growth and commuting further out, which isn’t helpful. Intensifying London is certainly the first part of the solution, but is slow and can’t deliver enough on its own. Releasing some appropriate, accessible bits of inner Green Belt could help too. But we’re also going to need lots of new rail infrastructure.

      With Crossrail 1 and 2 (and 3, 4…?) the South East starts to work more as an integrated super-conurbation. Alongside that, we need to let the towns around London’s edge (not just the more distant new towns) grow to be larger, more sustainable “outer suburbs”, each with the critical mass to provide more of their own services and jobs, reducing the reliance on radial commuting to central London.

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