Demographic Demand

There are three key issues to be addressed under the demography heading: migration, ageing and household formation. As outlined in Chap. 3, migration is perhaps the most pressing as well as the most politically fraught issue. Large-scale international in-migration is often politically unpopular and puts pressure on the housing market as well as increasing competition in the labour market, yet it is difficult for governments to control the flows given international crises and conflicts, cheap and easy air travel, long and porous borders and international agreements. For many countries, also, migration is the logical answer to the economic and social problems of ageing—it brings in more people of working and childbearing ages, who will staff the services used by the aged (e.g. health and social care) and pay taxes to support the burden of pensions.

Planning needs to take a realistic view of migration, in its housing need and demand assessments, even though local political sentiment may be reluctant to adopt a positive stance towards planning for growth when that growth is so clearly linked to migration. Social welfare and housing systems tend to place restrictions on immediate or early access to these benefits by new migrants, so the pressure in the housing market tends to be felt within the private rented sector, and derived demand from buy-to- let landlords buying properties for this. Inclusionary housing policies in planning face a delicate balancing act here: policies may prioritise affordable housing for local need—people with an established local connection or from a waiting list—yet this may conflict with equal opportunity legislation. The former situation is one more likely to command local political support, as has been seen in the context of the UK, particularly in rural areas. The 2015 European-wide refugee crisis revealed interesting differences in response, both between countries (e.g. Germany and Sweden, versus Britain) and between local communities, belying the simple equation of ‘comfortable’ with exclusionary.

Ageing of our populations should not be portrayed simply as a problem, as it is also both a mark of progress—healthier people leading active independent lives for much longer—and an opportunity, as, for example, through the contribution of millions of volunteers to civic society, charities, environmental work and caring roles. In housing, however, we face a conundrum. Most older households now are outright owner-occupiers occupying valuable properties which are larger than they need, but which they are attached to by sentiment and community ties. Relatively few are poor and most are at least comfortably off in material terms. The ideology and promise of home ownership are that this house is yours for as long as you want to live there, and indeed the main thrust of policies on ageing has been about ‘ageing in place’. Yet as the imbalance in wealth accumulation between young and old becomes more and more glaring, as does the imbalance in housing opportunity, space consumption and autonomy, and as tenants in a similar position are bombarded with welfare curbs like the UK’s ‘Bedroom Tax’, the unchallenged position of older owners becomes more untenable. The appropriate approach to this in terms of push factors is probably through the stronger use of progressive value- based property taxation, but this needs to be complemented by encouraging greater provision of suitable types and tenures of accommodation for ‘downsizing’, retirement living and living with access to care when needed. Planning can facilitate this, in part through policies to encourage mixing of size and type of dwelling (countering uniform zoning), in part through encouraging housing-with-care complexes, in part through ‘affordable’ downsizing options for social and private renters. More controversial perhaps are how large separate retirement living complexes, typically ‘gated communities’, should be regarded.

Household formation is a further aspect of the demographic challenge, although perhaps the nature of the challenge is changing in the light of recent experience, when rates of household formation by younger age groups have faltered. Whether this is wholly a product of affordability crisis and recession, or also some reflection of socio-cultural shifts (e.g. associated with greater participation in higher education, delayed marriage and family formation), remains to be seen. Society may adapt to adult children living longer in the parental home, even though from a northern European perspective this seems like a backward movement (becoming more like Mediterranean Europe). Working class young people may adapt to flat sharing with relative strangers, as students do, or going into lodgings, in the face of welfare reforms which reduce or eliminate their entitlement to support with housing costs for self-contained accommodation. However, a corollary of these adaptive responses is that they are second best and reversible. Evidence from economic modelling of housing change suggests that improved housing supply and affordability would lead to a significant increase in household formation, meaning that you actually need to build more than you think (based on a simple demographic projection) to eliminate shortage (Bramley and Watkins 2016).

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