As part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science, NatCen hosted an event examining the social implications of the housing market. The seminar took place at the Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hackney, at the heart of London’s housing bubble. We look back on the event’s highlights. Download the presentations here.
Changes in the housing landscape
The first presentation came from NatCen’s Alun Humphrey, who drew on data from the English Housing Survey (EHS) to outline changes in the tenure profile of England over the past century. He highlighted how, at the start of the twentieth century, the majority of households rented privately and only around a quarter owned their own homes. After the Second World War, he continued, a large period of house building took place alongside the growth of the owner occupied sector. He then went on to explain that the ‘right to buy’ scheme in the 1980s further increased the proportion of owner occupiers, which reached a peak of 71 per cent in2003, but since then factors such as the economic downturn and rising house prices have contributed to the rise of the private rented sector and a fall in owner occupation.
As well as giving an overview of the entire population, Alun looked at trends in tenure among young people. In 2003-04, Alun explained, 59 per cent of 25-24 year olds owned their own home but this proportion has dropped rapidly, to just 36 per cent in 2013-14. Over the same period, he told the audience, the proportion who are private renters has more than doubled from 21 per cent to 48 per cent. Alun suggested that if current trends continue in a little as 20 years the private rented sector could once again overtake owner occupation for the first time since the 1950s.
So what are the social implications of the rise of private renting? According to Alun, one of the many potential consequences is around community cohesion: in 2014 the majority of private renters had been at their current address for less than two years, whereas owner occupiers tend to stay in the same property for long periods.
Is there a problem with the current housing market?
Professor Christine Whitehead, Emeritus Professor of Housing Economics at the London School of Economics, began her presentation by asking if there is indeed a problem with the housing market. She examined the basic economics of the UK’s current housing situation, arguing that there is indeed a crisis, but it is not new. Rather, she reasoned, it has its roots in the recession of the early 1990s.
Prof Whitehead then turned to the Government’s projections which suggest we will need to build as many as 220,000 new homes each year until 2031 to meet current demand. This is lower than previous projections, Prof Whitehead explained, because it is based on data we have about household formation. She told the audience that the rate of new household formation has been restricted for over a decade by a lack of housing supply and problems of affordability, so the real number of homes required is likely to be much higher – and rates of house building in England are already lagging behind.
Living through a housing crisis
Our final speaker of the morning was Shelter’s Head of Research, Hilary Burkitt, who focused on the experiences of those who are affected by the housing crisis. She cited research by NatCen and YouGov for Shelter which shows that parents contribute as much as £2bn per year to deposits for their first-time buyer children. Hilary also highlighted a generation with ‘clipped wings’: a quarter of young adults still live in their childhood bedrooms and one in five 30-44 year olds without children are delaying starting a family due to cost of housing.
Hilary then told the audience that as many as 100,000 children in England are homeless. She ended her presentation with findings from Shelter’s recent qualitative research exploring the experiences of families living in emergency accommodation.
Questions from the audience
Vacant homes and under-occupancy were a recurring theme in questions from the audience, with the discussion moderated by the event’s chair, Laura Hood, Politics and Society Editor of The Conversation. One attendee drew attention to statistics from ONS, which show that eight in 10 owner occupied homes have at least one spare bedroom, compared to half of homes in the private rented sector. Another attendee was concerned about newspaper reports of investors buying property, particularly in London, with no intention of ever living there. Prof Whitehead replied that the number of vacant homes is the lowest that it’s ever been, as evidenced by electricity and sewage service usage. Alun added that the problem of vacant homes is not unique to London. Indeed, he highlighted the South West of England as a particular area where vacant homes are common as they are bought up as holiday homes.
Another theme, as might be expected at a social science event, was that of how best to use data. It is well know that London stands out from the rest of the country on a number of measures, and that these regional differences are masked by looking only at the national picture. But Alun suggested that there might be other more useful ways of grouping data for analysis than by traditional administrative regions: by urban/rural or level of deprivation, for example. The session ended with a recommendation from the audience that a new large-scale survey of new homes is necessary to fill a gap in current knowledge and to find out more about the quality of new homes and the circumstances of the people who live in them.
Download Alun Humphrey’s presentation
Download Professor Christine Whitehead’s presentation
Download Hilary Burkitt's presentation