The British housing crisis: is EU migration also responsible?

Let us get down to brass tacks: Britain has a serious housing crisis. When demand for housing (people wanting to rent or buy) exceeds supply (the stock of housing) the effects are not good for society. House prices and rents rise, making it difficult for people to pay for their accommodation. This reduces the net income available for other things, makes people anxious and directly affects their quality of life.

If people migrate to the UK or wealthy foreigners invest in the housing market, this reduces the housing supply for the domestic population unless construction goes up. This drives-up house prices and the levels of frustration, especially when people have to share their homes with their parents/children, are priced out of living in their communities or see empty houses that are investments, rather than homes. This is especially so in Britain, a nation of home owners and this state of affairs leads some to conclude that the housing crisis is caused by the EU and its freedom of movement principle. It leads to a perception that perhaps EU mobility results in a lack of housing for the native population. This is powerful argument during the period leading up to the EU referendum in June 2016; it connects with the EU immigration and EU benefit tourism, topics I have previously written about, and is presented as another reason for Britons to vote to Leave the EU (i.e. Brexit). So it is important to address the nature of the British housing crisis and the EU’s role in it.

The first thing to be said is that there is no shortage of analysis of either the housing problems or the possible solutions, but the latter basically boil down to balancing housing demand and supply, together with the political will to solve the crisis.

My home is my castle: demand for housing

Numerous factors influence housing demand. A critical factor is price: at higher prices, real incomes fall and people will reduce their demand while alternatives to owning a property, such as renting, become more attractive. There is a multitude of other factors that are important, such as population dynamics (population size, migration, birth and death rates, age structure, etc.), incomes of households (some may shift from renting to buying, move to a bigger property, buy a second property, a holiday home, etc.), social and lifestyle trends (e.g. late marriages, divorce rates, decisions to remain single, etc. all increase single households and thus demand), availability of credit and interest rates (higher rates make ownership less affordable while lower ones achieve the opposite and restriction in the supply of credit reduces demand for housing and can lead to a fall in house prices) and other influences such as government incentives (to buy, to rent or to buy to rent) and expectations in terms of house /land price developments (speculation).

Since all the above influence housing demand, estimating future demand is a complex process. What is simple though is that immigration, whether from the EU or elsewhere, is only one factor among many others, the majority of which are more influential in terms of stimulating demand for housing in the UK.

Nevertheless, as far as the EU’s freedom of movement of people is concerned, there are two further issues to consider:

  • EU migrants are a sub-set of the migrants to the UK. In a separate post, I showed that of the 498,040 people who migrated to Britain in 2012, 80,196 or 16.1% were Brits returning home, 157,554 (31.6%) were from the EU and 260,290 (52.2%) were from the Commonwealth and other countries that Britain is entirely responsible for, rather than the EU;
  • EU migration is not a one way street and not all roads lead to London and the South East. In the same year, 321,000 people left the UK, a proportion of which migrated to other countries in the EU.

Consequently, even if EU migration was the only issue affecting demand for housing, which is clearly far from being the case, EU migrants do not constitute the majority of immigrants to the UK. Furthermore, the same process is happening in other EU countries that receive Britons.

A number of housing demand studies demonstrate the same trend in the UK: housing demand is increasing significantly and the government and the rest of the housing system, not least the planning system and the construction industry, need to respond in order to ensure that the supply covers the future demand. After all, it is not unusual for populations to increase and housing policy and system must respond in order to deliver affordable, quality housing. The public has the right to expect this irrespective of the particular set of factors that may drive housing demand (i.e. whether immigration is an issue or indeed whether it is from the EU or elsewhere) at a particular point in time.

A comprehensive estimate of housing need and demand in England was published by the Town and Country Planning Association. It estimated that England alone required 240,000 – 245,000 additional homes each year until 2031 in order to meet rising demand. Many similar projections have been made long before EU migration to the UK became an issue of debate post-2007.

Housing supply: decades of neglect = housing crisis

The issue then is how much housing is being built and is it sufficient to meet the demand for 245,000 new units per annum? The UK housing construction data (supply) are presented in the Table below.

Table 1 UK Housing Construction

Source: Gov.uk, Live tables on house building, Table 209

A few points are worth noting based on the Table:

  • Housing construction (permanent dwellings completed) in England have fluctuated between a peak of 170,610 in 2007/8 and 108,870 in 2011/11;
  • The point during which it was perceived that there was an acute housing crisis was around 2005 but since then, the trend in terms of housing supply, albeit fluctuating slightly, has actually been downwards;
  • By definition if the target for England is 245,000 new units per annum, the equivalent for the UK will be much higher. The last year of housing construction data (2014-5) shows a gap of 93,000 even against the lower target for England;
  • In a well-functioning housing market where the citizens, planning authorities, construction industry and the government jointly perceive a housing crisis, the normal response would be for housing supply to increase to reach the target of 245,000 new housing units per annum for England. If this does not happen, it adds to the affordability pressures experienced;
  • If here is such a systematic lack of construction, then surely the respective people in charge of housing policy, finance, planning, construction, etc. are responsible.

To Scapegoat or not to scapegoat (or holding a mirror to British policy makers)

A considerate British voter in the forthcoming EU referendum might reflect on the following issues:

  • The EU has no control in the housing sphere: this is exclusively the remit of national governments, in this case successive UK governments;
  • There are many factors affecting demand for housing, of which EU migration is only a secondary factor;
  • The EU related migration accounted for 31.6% of the migrants to the UK in 2012, but the UK also sent its migrants to EU countries – the EU freedom of movement cuts both ways;
  • The UK has systematically produced fewer housing units than it needs for a period of decades despite projections of massive unmet demand for housing ;
  • The UK, including its politicians, its construction industry and its planning system (local authorities) are responsible for ensuring that supply keeps-up with demand and that housing is affordable. This requires responding to changes in housing circumstances, regardless of what is driving them (e.g. prices, birth rates, speculation, constrained land release, immigration, interest rates, tax incentives, etc.);
  • Despite mounting pressure, regular public outcries, evidence of shortage and affordability problems, etc., the UK only managed to build a paltry 150,000 housing units in 2014-5. This is a damning indictment of Britain, not least its politicians, policy-makers and industry.

It is up to each individual to form their own opinion of where the blame for Britain’s chronic housing crisis should rest. Scapegoating EU migration (which took off from 2004) for problems which have been systematically neglected in the UK amounts to a disgraceful attempt to blame others for issues which Britons have failed to tackle over and over again and are still doing a miserably bad job with.

In this context, it is worth addressing two issues which policy-makers, politicians and the Leave the EU campaign will almost certainly raise in defence of the indefensible: the lack of adequate and affordable housing in the UK, which is a basic human right.

Clutching at straws 1: the crowded island myth

Many, if not most, Britons appear to be convinced that the UK is a very crowded island and that there is simply no space left for housing construction, let alone to accommodate migrants from the EU or anyone else. Certain segments of the media that are biased against the EU, as well as the general Leave campaign, including populist political parties, are keen to emphasize this argument, so let us examine the claim.

The most comprehensive analysis of this issue (UK National Ecosystem Assessment) concluded that only 6.8% of the total land area of the UK is urban (10.6% of England, 1.9% of Scotland, 3.6% of Northern Ireland and 4.1% of Wales). But being urban does not necessarily mean that it is built upon since such areas also contain gardens, lakes, etc. The most detailed analysis ever conducted found that only 2.3% of England is built upon, the rest is natural. Elsewhere in the UK, the figure is less than 1%. Contrary to popular misconception, only a tiny fraction of Britain has been concreted over. Britain is not a crowded island. It can and must build more housing for the benefit of its citizens.

Clutching at straws 2: EU preferential treatment in accessing social housing myth

Another common perception is that EU citizens are benefit tourists, and that they strain the welfare state by having a higher demand for social housing. But the data show that about 17% of UK-born and 18% of foreign-born individuals live in social housing. That means that foreigners are on par with native Britons when it comes to access to social housing. However, when it comes specifically to EU migrants, the popular perception is even more incorrect. Studies demonstrate that citizens of EU-8 countries who arrived in the UK after accession are 57% less likely to live in social housing than native residents. More recent studies indicate that over 90% of immigrants in the UK are in households that are eligible to apply for social housing (p.3) and confirm that EU (and EEA) citizens are less likely to be in social housing than Britons.  The research also shows that, once factors like the demographic structure, location and economic circumstances are taken into consideration, immigrant households are significantly less likely to be in social housing than equivalent native households. Another popular myth bites the dust.

Build, Build, Build

The housing crisis is fundamentally a matter of demand and supply and the policy choices each country makes about how to prioritize public investment and other policy decisions. For decades Britain has emphasized home ownership as the one and only housing policy priority. It has constrained social housing construction for ideological and financial reasons, while at the same time forcing social housing to be sold at discount. Its recent policies have stimulated a boom in buy-to-rent, which has increased private renting but also boosted house prices and exacerbated the affordability problem.  At the same time, policy makers have not stimulated the planning system to release sufficient land for housing construction, mainly due to the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome. In the meant time, the construction industry has shown much more readiness to speculate in order to accumulate, rather than increase construction efficiency, productivity and quality. None of this has stimulated housing supply greatly while housing affordability has declined.

Housing is a matter for each of the 28 nation states of the EU. Some countries, like Germany, build enough housing to meet the needs of their citizens whose quality of life is significantly improved by having sufficient, high quality, affordable homes to rent and/or buy (the recent refugee crisis could not have been planned for in advance. By definition, a surge of 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2015 was not part of the housing forecast). Others, like Britain, do not build enough housing. This is not because of insufficient land, EU freedom of movement of people or other handy excuses for systemic failures on the part of British politicians and their policies, the British planning system and the British construction industry. Any such interpretation amounts to the politics of scapegoating others for one’s own glaring failures and I, for one, will have no truck with it.

  • Is the EU responsible for the British housing crisis: The British housing crisis has been decades in the making. Strong EU immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon.
  • Is the British government responsible for the state of British housing: Its policies have focused almost entirely on housing ownership (tenure), rather than housing construction.
  • Should I vote to leave the EU because of the state of British housing: Britain alone is responsible for regulating demand and supply to deliver sufficient and affordable housing.

© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU


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Comments (2)

  1. Heinrich Dr. POELL

    Well argued. I only have some reservations about the statement:

    ” … damning indictment of Britain, not least its politicians, policy-makers and industry”

    While “industry” (a rather unspecific term for a widely diverging group of economic actors) certainly has to share the blame for the housing crisis, it operates in a different sphere from politicos.

    What is also missing from the analysis is the effect of the national obsession with real estate, and the widespread idea that getting rich from buying and selling property is one’s birthright. This underlies the political failings of successive governments, which did not dare to show leadership in confronting this folly.

    Reply
  2. rpinto_anglodeutsch (Post author)

    Good points, both of them.
    By industry, I was referring specifically to the construction industry which appear to be almost more interested in speculative gains rather than focusing on its core business of building high quality homes which are affordable.The are indeed different spheres, but this particular industry has undoubtedly played a part in the housing crisis.
    You are right about the mentality of buying and selling, moving to a larger home over time and basically focusing far too much on housing as an investment, rather than as a home. This is not as widespread in other countries such as Germany, France, Italy, etc.
    On the other hand, there is so little construction in the UK that is a perfectly rational response to invest in bricks and mortar, since the gains to be made, either through asset appreciation of rent levels, are high compared with the available alternatives. This “national obsession” is not likely to change any time soon, certainly not until housing supply and demand match much more than is currently the case. And yes, there has certainly been a failure of successive governments in confronting the issue.

    Reply

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