Housing continues to gain traction with policy makers, the media and local people. The conflicting interests of the various parties combined with the consistent policy failures over the past seven or so decades makes this a very difficult problem.
There is no doubt that the UK needs more houses and some places need them more than others. The under-supply of houses makes owning a home unaffordable, raises rental prices and pushes people either out of the area (and out of that labour market) and/or on to some sort of benefit.
The latest Government initiative to reduce the housing benefit given to people with empty bedrooms seems an interesting incentive to get people living in places that best suit their need. However, there are two things the Government needs to be wary of: 1. how people use the rooms and; 2. the type of housing available.
People’s lives are complex, which is part of the reason as to why there are often many policies with high complexity. Some people may have children but are separated and so need an extra bedroom for when they come to visit. Or, indeed, families have more than one child and they need separate rooms. Current proposals are in danger of disregarding these complexities in favour of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach by declaring rooms ’empty’ when they have a working purpose.
But, more importantly, the incentive only works when there is the supply of social housing matches the demand. For example, if a single, unmarried person without any children lives in a two bed property but there aren’t any one-bed properties to move in to, then they will be financially hit with no-where to go.
This also has important implications for policy – it has to have a spatial element to it. Places face very different housing issues and the demand for types of social housing is no different. Over the past decade, demand for social housing by dwelling type has changed very differently by region:
For central policy to be effective it has to acknowledge and allow for spatial variation. It has to give local areas time and notice to shifting policy so that changes and provisions can be made. Without this, central policy can have long-lasting, damaging and unintended effects.