May 22, 2018
The housing crisis is affecting many communities around the UK, from the ever-increasing density of London to remote communities in the Scottish Highlands. As with many large-scale problems, it affects the lives of many, and could be damaging not just individual prospects but also the future health of entire communities, regions and cities.
A surprisingly wide portion of the population is also feeling its effects. Young people are, willingly or not, staying home longer because there is no available housing stock in their area, or because the flat rents or sale prices are inflated beyond reach. In the cities, competition for space keeps raising the prices ahead of incomes for even mid to higher-level professionals, while in the countryside, holiday lets tend to tie up what housing stock exists. While tourism is a boon to the economy, it seems to be exacerbating the housing woes of locals. The elderly face dire straits, often becoming “house poor” even if they own property, with all their equity tied up in land, but without access to alternative housing that would be more suited to their needs and less costly to maintain.
Brexit adds another dimension of complexity to the housing situation. A reduction in resident foreign workers and in-migration may free up some housing and reduce pressure, but this is likely to have an uneven benefit based on current areas of high foreign residency and is unlikely to significantly correct the current imbalance.
The loss of European workers in the construction industry may have a further deleterious effect on the housing crisis. Construction times may go up, along with costs, if the availability of skilled workers dries up or even dips for a period around Brexit, until the next generation of workers can be fully trained. This challenge for local residents is an opportunity for outside investors, as housing prices are expected to go up.
Of course, housing speculation, particularly by international investors, is another source of the housing crisis. While it seems unrealistic to lay the trouble entirely at the feet of outside investment, given the number of elements at work, speculation is a real and well-documented problem in many international cities and locations of interest around the world, and governments that have been slow to react from Canada to Australia are starting to take notice and implement laws and taxes to slow the growth and dampen the enthusiasm of investors with some success. Vancouver’s foreign buyers’ tax has shown signs of slowing and even reversing the upward trend in luxury housing speculation, while Australia’s crackdown on foreign influences has been one of their most popular moves with citizens. Britain would do well to protect its own interests and people with similar strategies.
Other areas of complexity include land availability in highly desirable locations, and the lack of infrastructure and jobs away from high-density population centres, most notably in and around London. Direct motorways and bridges with adequate capacity tend to be lacking the further from London you get, and aging rail infrastructure and surging prices are reducing service to far-flung areas. The higher expenses for shipped goods, expense and length of transit time, and shockingly poor access to reliable, high-speed internet services in parts of the country put additional pressure for the population to relocate to more expensive and already overcrowded areas.
The government’s attempts at addressing housing scarcity and supporting at-risk populations have been inadequate. Existing council housing tends to be in a sad state, and there’s not enough availability in what has been built to meet current needs. While more new subsidised housing has been promised, delivery has been slower than projected.
There are a few bright points on the horizon. The community planning and aesthetics of council housing seem to be improving considerably. Eco-friendly, smart designs are more sensitive to environmental factors to provide greater comfort and longevity in the current generation of social rented developments. Innovative solutions such as prefabrication and creatively reused materials also show promise.
They’re also turning up further afield. Swan Group, run by Brian Weal, recently applied to complete a development of over 100 units in East Kilbride, an encouraging move to improve beleaguered Scottish housing scarcity. While much more is needed, partnerships between developers, housing managers and investors to make more housing more accessible in more locations is encouragingly on the rise.
The government does not show evidence of having done enough to solve Britain’s housing crisis, and they do not seem likely to deliver on what promises have been made. However, the current wave of council housing investment will be much appreciated nonetheless, with hopefully more to follow.