Posted by: Colin Wiles06/12/2011
Last night’s Great British Property Scandal on Channel 4 was good knockabout TV, with plenty of righteous anger about the scandal of empty properties. Presenter George Clarke showed us street after street of boarded up Victorian terraces, mostly in the failed market renewal areas of the North West by the look of them. But I think his anger was misplaced; the real scandal is elsewhere, and his solutions to our housing crisis seem a little naïve, in my view.
Of course it is an utter scandal that so many properties are standing empty and, regrettably, the programme made the housing profession look like a bunch of bureaucratic, blundering idiots, without a creative thought in their collective heads about how to bring these properties back into use. It also made you feel that a new squatting movement to jump-start some effective official action would be morally justified – it’s certainly what I would be doing if I was 25 and without a property to live in.
But even if all of the long-term empties were brought back into use it would still only scratch the surface of housing need. There are around 800,000 empty properties in England but only 280,000 of them are long term empties. The rest are empty for valid reasons - awaiting new tenants or owners to move in, or for probate to be sorted out. Any properly functioning housing market will always have a proportion of empty properties, otherwise it will stagnate.
Yet we have 2 million households on waiting lists and the average age of a first time buyer is 37.
What’s more, as Shelter has pointed out, many long-term empty properties are in places where people do not want to live. I have several times suggested to young people that they should consider moving to Middlesbrough, as you can buy a Victorian terrace there for £10,000. Their response is always the same; “Who the hell wants to live in Middlesbrough?”
No, the real property scandal is the decline in house building to 1920s levels, and the failure to provide enough land for new homes. I agree with George Clarke that we need dense, compact cities, but for many families their ideal home is the suburban house with a garden front and back. Because of population growth we need to build at least 5 million homes over the next twenty years, and as I’ve argued before, no more than 2 million of those can be built within existing urban areas. That means three million need to be built on urban extensions and new settlements. George Clarke’s proposed solutions to the housing crisis simply do not address the urgent scale of the problem and the real property scandal that surrounds us.
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles