Demographics

It is widely understood and accepted that demographic changes and trends are very important for housing, whether in terms of need or demand, social provision or trends in the market, and demographic projections have long played a central role in planning for housing. It is also true that some aspects of demography can be predicted quite a long way into the future with reasonable confidence; for example, nearly all of the people who will be forming households in 20 years’ time have already been born. Three aspects, however, are less certain, and more sensitive from a policy point of view. These are household formation, migration, and the health and dependency status of the oldest age groups.

Housing need and demand depends more directly on numbers of households than on population numbers, and the propensity of a population to form separate households is a significant variable in its own right. Whilst the patterns across age groups are mainly fairly stable and predictable, for younger adults there is considerable variation, and strong evidence that this relates, in part, to economic factors such as income, unemployment and house prices/rents, as well as possibly to the effective availability of housing in the region (Bramley et al. 1997, 2010, 2014; Ermisch 1999; Meen 2011). This susceptibility to economic influences has been confirmed by some recent work on post-crisis patterns in the USA (Lee and Painter 2013; Dyrda et al. 2012; Paciorek (2013). Patterns of marriage/partner- ship formation/dissolution and fertility are also changing, and whilst these may be characterised as social trends they also may not be uninfluenced economic factors; there is evidence of poverty effects here, and these may interact with benefit systems (Bramley et al. 1997, 2014).

Migration is probably the most uncertain, and certainly now the most controversial, aspect of demographics affecting housing. Domestic migration between localities and regions is a major factor determining population and household growth at the local level, and one which raises issues about how it should be forecast/projected in a planning context— an issue discussed further in Chap. 10. However, international migration is of large and growing significance in many countries, and tends to be a more politically charged issue. In the UK currently, and in some other European countries, international migration is the main driver of household growth (e.g. net migration of 250-350,000 persons per year, projected household growth of 215,000, housing construction of about half of that currently in England). A critical difference between population increases via immigration in comparison to natural birth rates is that adult migrants typically present an ‘instant’ household, with implications for housing demand.

Migration can be politically unpopular; because of concerns about ‘crowding’ of cities and services, urban sprawl into rural areas, competition for jobs, differences in language, culture and religion at the local scale. But international immigration is also regarded as a potential contributor to economic growth and a solution to the problem of an ageing population. Any issue touching on race/ethnicity tends to be very politically sensitive. However, the world is becoming a more mobile place, with cheap air travel and the internet facilitating the process, a by-product of globalisation. People are moving from different regions for different reasons—work, study, family, retirement, to escape conflict or destitution. There are different rules and rights affecting different groups—for example, the right to free movement of labour within the EU, or the rights of refugees under UN conventions—but also a good deal of ‘leakage’ in the form of illegal or undocumented migration status. In short, implications for housing demand arising from migration remain difficult to predict. Further, it is usually the case that the level of government responsible for planning for housing is far removed from the national policy arena governing population policy.

One of the most remarkable features of the demographic data is the very large and continuing increase in life expectancies. This is contributing to population and household growth, particularly the growth in smaller households as part of the broader phenomenon of ‘ageing’. However, at the same time, there is a change in both popular and official perceptions as to what counts as being ‘old’. People in their mid-60s are on average healthier and more active than their equivalent 20 or 30 years ago, and they are certainly on average much more affluent and able to enjoy a wider range of leisure activities. Retirement ages are generally now rising, whilst also becoming more flexible—this is partly necessary to avoid state pensions systems being bankrupted. Whilst for some 70 may be ‘the new 50’, there is still great variation (part of it correlated with socio-economic status) in the health status of older people, and a significant proportion will face an extended period of dependency and need for care towards the end of their life, albeit this may happen at a greater age (Hills 2015). The evidence suggests that on the whole this period of dependency is not diminishing, and so the wider issues of how to manage the process (‘ageing in place’ versus institutional care) and how to fund care and support (taking what account of accumulated wealth, including housing equity), are facing governments and service providers in most countries. Similarly, a major question for the housing system in many countries is the extent to which the housing stock matches demographically defined housing need. In many countries, there is periodic anxiety over whether older ‘empty nesters’ will move to smaller housing units, ‘freeing up’ larger homes for young families. However, with market preferences increasingly shifting towards accessible, inner urban locations and away from car-dependent suburbia, there are equal concerns, particularly in the USA, that larger housing stock will become redundant (Nelson 2009).

 
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