George Monbiot doesn't have a magic wand that can solve the housing crisis

January 04, 2011 2:03 PM

The shortage of housing in parts of the UK is a really serious issue.  While only an unfortunate minority can't easily afford to feed and clothe themselves these days, shelter - another of those vital building blocks at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs - is often much more difficult to obtain at the right quantity, quality and price.

A scarcity of housing has a range of unpleasant social and economic side effects:  Overcrowding is unpleasant and too many families can't afford the space they need; others are forced to put off having children entirely or not have the number of children they want because they can't afford to house them; and the oscillation of house prices between unaffordable and crashing has driven economic and financial crises.

George Monbiot thinks he has a solution, an easy one that doesn't even require us to build more homes. Just live in the many empty rooms in the cavernous mansions of the rich.  Apparently they are everywhere, and 37 per cent of the housing stock is under-occupied.  Have we really missed such an orgy of mansion building, or is something else going on?

We don't know a lot about the make-up of the under-occupied homes.  It might be possible to get a lot more out of the "EHS-LFS combined dataset" that is the basis for what statistics we do have (all the empirical claims in this post are from that source, unless otherwise stated), but for now it is pretty limited.  I would guess that they are made up mostly of these categories of people, though:

People living in areas where housing is relatively affordable, so a bit more space - which most people agree is nice - isn't that expensive. Monbiot doesn't quote his source when it says that: "London had the highest rate of overcrowding, 7.2%, with around a third of all overcrowded households in England living in London. London also had the lowest rate of under-occupation, at 23.3%, whilst the South West and the East Midlands had the highest rates, 40.4% and 40.3% respectively."  That tells you two things:

  1. Under-occupied homes aren't located where the most rich people are, and particularly where the number of super-rich people has grown the most.  The growth in the numbers of really rich people in Britain over the period Monbiot is looking at has been concentrated in London, particularly in the financial services industry.

  2. Under-occupied homes aren't where you need them to address the housing crisis.  Lots more homes in the South West and East Midlands aren't what we need.


Parents whose children have moved out. I would guess this is the biggest category.  Families with two or three teenage children often need a three or four bedroom house to ensure that they aren't overcrowded.  When the children leave, that house is immediately under-occupied.  Many parents will downsize over time, bigger houses are expensive after all, but there are a few reasons they might not, at least immediately:

  • They like their current house.  When you've lived somewhere for a decade or more you can often develop a sentimental attachment to it.  No doubt an ardent campaigner like George Monbiot can attack that as unsustainable, but in the real world where our homes are more than human storage bays it is meaningful.

  • Moving is expensive and unpleasant.  People often won't move immediately, even if it would be sensible, because it is a process that costs a lot of money and involves a lot of disruption.  They'll wait a bit, and a snapshot like the one Monbiot is using will register them as living in an under-occupied home.

  • They want to be able to have the children back for Christmas.  Children move away but they often come back.  Particularly with such a high youth unemployment rate, lots of young people who strike out for independence with huge confidence find that they need to beat a temporary retreat to the family home a few months or years later.  Any parent whose children have left home, but who wants to be able to accommodate them without overcrowding when they come back, will count in the under-occupied number.


The only solution Monbiot seems to have for those who don't want to move out of their under-occupied homes is to take lodgers.  But it doesn't seem so unreasonable that people resist sharing their home with strangers.  They want their own home, and their privacy.  While some might welcome a lodger for companionship, as he suggests, others aren't lonely, and many won't be single.  And you can't kick out lodgers over Christmas, it would be unfriendly.

Beyond that, the source for Monbiot's statistics also reports that overcrowding "is a problem which particularly affects households with children."  You therefore can't solve the problem of overcrowding with more spaces for lodgers.  A simple example shows why that is the case even if you don't accept that most families want their own home not a share:  If you take an under-occupied three bedroom house with a single elderly person in it, and add a family who need a room for the parents and two rooms for children, you're back to overcrowding!

The striking increase Monbiot has spotted over a few years is almost certainly a result of a series of compounding trends.  More old people, the children of the baby boomers moving out and things like that.  It certainly can't be explained by the super rich, who are too few in number to account for big changes in how homes are occupied.  That one statistic, and a taste for misplaced class warfare, has led him to ignore the real circumstances that are the best explanations of why so many households are under and over-occupied.

What is really worrying about Monbiot's article isn't that it is wrong, we can rebut it.   It is that it could so easily become a dangerous but implacable myth.  Like Richard Murphy's estimates of the "tax gap" that free lunch will be very tempting to lots of campaigners and allow them to avoid thinking about difficult questions on planning regulations, in particular.  It could also easily inspire a group like UK Uncut to start invading homes and demonising the rich, further putting them off bringing investment, jobs and prosperity to the UK.   These sorts of myths are piling up - other examples include the findings of the Spirit Level and low social mobility -and they are responsible for lots of the worst policy mistakes the political class are making today.

Mark Wallace, our former Campaign Director, has pointed out that Monbiot may also be a bit of a hypocrite.  Does he have two spare rooms?  Is he taking lodgers?The shortage of housing in parts of the UK is a really serious issue.  While only an unfortunate minority can't easily afford to feed and clothe themselves these days, shelter - another of those vital building blocks at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs - is often much more difficult to obtain at the right quantity, quality and price.

A scarcity of housing has a range of unpleasant social and economic side effects:  Overcrowding is unpleasant and too many families can't afford the space they need; others are forced to put off having children entirely or not have the number of children they want because they can't afford to house them; and the oscillation of house prices between unaffordable and crashing has driven economic and financial crises.

George Monbiot thinks he has a solution, an easy one that doesn't even require us to build more homes. Just live in the many empty rooms in the cavernous mansions of the rich.  Apparently they are everywhere, and 37 per cent of the housing stock is under-occupied.  Have we really missed such an orgy of mansion building, or is something else going on?

We don't know a lot about the make-up of the under-occupied homes.  It might be possible to get a lot more out of the "EHS-LFS combined dataset" that is the basis for what statistics we do have (all the empirical claims in this post are from that source, unless otherwise stated), but for now it is pretty limited.  I would guess that they are made up mostly of these categories of people, though:

People living in areas where housing is relatively affordable, so a bit more space - which most people agree is nice - isn't that expensive. Monbiot doesn't quote his source when it says that: "London had the highest rate of overcrowding, 7.2%, with around a third of all overcrowded households in England living in London. London also had the lowest rate of under-occupation, at 23.3%, whilst the South West and the East Midlands had the highest rates, 40.4% and 40.3% respectively."  That tells you two things:

  1. Under-occupied homes aren't located where the most rich people are, and particularly where the number of super-rich people has grown the most.  The growth in the numbers of really rich people in Britain over the period Monbiot is looking at has been concentrated in London, particularly in the financial services industry.

  2. Under-occupied homes aren't where you need them to address the housing crisis.  Lots more homes in the South West and East Midlands aren't what we need.


Parents whose children have moved out. I would guess this is the biggest category.  Families with two or three teenage children often need a three or four bedroom house to ensure that they aren't overcrowded.  When the children leave, that house is immediately under-occupied.  Many parents will downsize over time, bigger houses are expensive after all, but there are a few reasons they might not, at least immediately:

  • They like their current house.  When you've lived somewhere for a decade or more you can often develop a sentimental attachment to it.  No doubt an ardent campaigner like George Monbiot can attack that as unsustainable, but in the real world where our homes are more than human storage bays it is meaningful.

  • Moving is expensive and unpleasant.  People often won't move immediately, even if it would be sensible, because it is a process that costs a lot of money and involves a lot of disruption.  They'll wait a bit, and a snapshot like the one Monbiot is using will register them as living in an under-occupied home.

  • They want to be able to have the children back for Christmas.  Children move away but they often come back.  Particularly with such a high youth unemployment rate, lots of young people who strike out for independence with huge confidence find that they need to beat a temporary retreat to the family home a few months or years later.  Any parent whose children have left home, but who wants to be able to accommodate them without overcrowding when they come back, will count in the under-occupied number.


The only solution Monbiot seems to have for those who don't want to move out of their under-occupied homes is to take lodgers.  But it doesn't seem so unreasonable that people resist sharing their home with strangers.  They want their own home, and their privacy.  While some might welcome a lodger for companionship, as he suggests, others aren't lonely, and many won't be single.  And you can't kick out lodgers over Christmas, it would be unfriendly.

Beyond that, the source for Monbiot's statistics also reports that overcrowding "is a problem which particularly affects households with children."  You therefore can't solve the problem of overcrowding with more spaces for lodgers.  A simple example shows why that is the case even if you don't accept that most families want their own home not a share:  If you take an under-occupied three bedroom house with a single elderly person in it, and add a family who need a room for the parents and two rooms for children, you're back to overcrowding!

The striking increase Monbiot has spotted over a few years is almost certainly a result of a series of compounding trends.  More old people, the children of the baby boomers moving out and things like that.  It certainly can't be explained by the super rich, who are too few in number to account for big changes in how homes are occupied.  That one statistic, and a taste for misplaced class warfare, has led him to ignore the real circumstances that are the best explanations of why so many households are under and over-occupied.

What is really worrying about Monbiot's article isn't that it is wrong, we can rebut it.   It is that it could so easily become a dangerous but implacable myth.  Like Richard Murphy's estimates of the "tax gap" that free lunch will be very tempting to lots of campaigners and allow them to avoid thinking about difficult questions on planning regulations, in particular.  It could also easily inspire a group like UK Uncut to start invading homes and demonising the rich, further putting them off bringing investment, jobs and prosperity to the UK.   These sorts of myths are piling up - other examples include the findings of the Spirit Level and low social mobility -and they are responsible for lots of the worst policy mistakes the political class are making today.

Mark Wallace, our former Campaign Director, has pointed out that Monbiot may also be a bit of a hypocrite.  Does he have two spare rooms?  Is he taking lodgers?

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