Thursday, 22 May 2014

Housing, Population and the Environment

The main media channels in the UK focus primarily on the story of rising house prices in the UK, the large demand for housing and the social impact this situation has. It is interesting to note that the potential danger to the environment caused by increased house and tower block construction rarely enters the debate. The topic of population appears to be almost taboo.

The housing bubble is the sexiest story it seems for the newspapers. It does two things: it gives a secret thrill to home owners and those with a ‘property portfolio’; and, it infuriates those hardworking people who feel excluded from the property market. There is also the danger and uncertainty of the bubble popping; perhaps any day now.

The people who benefit the most are of course the estate agents. They don’t risk anything and for every sale they take out a commission in cold hard cash. The larger the final sum, the bigger the commission payment if it is based on a percentage of the sale price.

The banks risk money with defaulters. The buyers risk being left with negative equity if the market suddenly changes.

Day in and day out this is the outline for the ‘property story’. This is the narrative that politicians respond to. They are not keen to regulate the workings of the free market, but they can make promises to bring down prices by building more houses. Labour has recently flirted with the idea of putting a freeze on some rental prices. It was also the last labour government that introduced social housing and affordable housing quotas for new developments.

What is given very little credence is the environmental problems of more house building. Since government has decreed that green sites are off-limits there has become more pressure on brown land sites, often in urban areas. The result is often greater population density and the sacrifice of other amenities such as parks. Brown fill sites while well intentioned are degrading the urban environment.

Those sites that are green but not protected by zonal laws also become potential targets for development. The story of schools selling their playing fields to developers is a good example of this.

The reality is that more houses anywhere put more pressure on the environment; use more resources; and invariably encroach on natural habitat.

And to take another step back from the problem – it becomes clear that the reason for the need for more housing is an increasing population.

The UK population is currently at about 52 million. It is increasing by 2 or 3% a year. 33% of this increase is accounted for by immigration. Not only are new families being made all the time but also a net surplus of people coming to the UK is also creating a growing need for new housing, especially affordable housing.

The hottest political potato at the moment is Europe. Parties adopting an anti-Europe stance are proliferating. I don’t believe this is entirely due to racism, but more to do with a strong intuition that we are ‘full’ and don’t need any more people coming into the country. Of course, many immigrants are coming from outside the EU. These immigrants are also competing in the housing and rental markets. Their perceived willingness to work for minimum wage at unsociable hours and live in crowded houses and flats is both welcome by business and viewed suspiciously by many UK citizens.

Again, the story is about society and politics. The damage to the environment doesn’t get much a mention. While some commentators suggest a zero immigration/ emigration policy (where the number of people leaving is equal to the number coming) what is not suggested is that we try and maintain the current population level, or even decrease it.  A sustainable population dovetails with a sustainable housing situation.

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