Danny Dorling’s ‘All that is solid’: The worst book on the housing crisis so far

A lot of nonsense is being written about the UK’s housing crisis. But Danny Dorling’s book ‘All that is solid. The great housing disaster’ is easily the worst contribution so far.

Let us start with the good aspects of the book, and do hold your breath if you feel like it: this won’t take long. The book is quite good in describing the symptoms of the crisis. Dorling’s critique of the ‘Help to Buy’ scheme is apt, and his attack on the bedroom tax is well worth a read. Those parts of the book are solid. But that’s about it.

Also on the plus side, various passages are unintentionally funny, especially when Dorling describes what he believes to be the motives of his political opponents. Dorling is the type of leftie who genuinely imagines his opponents to think and act like the villains in a Batman comic. For example, he is convinced that the coalition parties ‘want the children of the rich to be given more space in the city, and they want the children of the poor to go’ (p. 187). Those who do not share Dorling’s idolisation of squatters are likened to ‘the Victorian regressive who believed that hunger was a far more effective weapon than the overseer’s whip’ (p. 283), and to ‘the 1930s eugenicists who believed a national health service would only help the weak to survive and breed’ (ibid).

On the neutral side, in large parts, this book reads more like a generic left-wing rant than a book about housing. If one fed an automatic text generator with the terms ‘greed’, ‘capitalism’, ‘the rich’, ‘inequality’, ‘bankers’ and ‘Thatcher’, the result would probably be better than large sections of Dorling’s book. Those passages neither add nor subtract value. Or, since everything has to have a Game of Thrones analogy nowadays, let’s put it this way: They are the equivalent of the passages in A Feast for Crows which describe Brienne of Tarth wandering aimlessly and pointlessly through the Riverlands.   

Now, to the bad parts. It would be wrong to claim that the book fails to identify the causes of the undersupply of housing. Worse, this book categorically denies that there is such a thing as a housing undersupply. The central thesis of All that is solid is that there is more than enough housing, and no need to build anything for the moment. The problem, Dorling argues, is purely one of distribution: Some people have too little because others have too much. The solution, then, is not to increase housing supply (an option Dorling repeatedly dismisses), but to redistribute the housing stock that is already there: kick the rich out of their houses, and put the poor into them.

Until two thirds into the book, Dorling keeps repeating the assertion that there is an abundance of housing which is just poorly distributed, without backing it up with anything. It is only then that he presents the ‘evidence’ for this main thesis. Dorling’s measure of housing supply is the number of rooms per capita, which, he shows, has steadily increased from about 1 a century ago to about 2.5 today. When he says that we have ‘more housing than ever’, what he means is that we have more rooms than ever. 

Except, there is a small problem with using the number of rooms as a proxy for housing supply in the UK. In a major international study of housing markets and housing conditions, Oliver Hartwich and Alan Evans ranked European countries by a variety of housing indicators, and showed a British peculiarity: When countries are ranked by the number of rooms per dwelling, the UK comes out on top of the list, but when they are ranked by average room size, the UK comes out at the very bottom. Dorling’s supposed abundance of housing is simply an artefact of the fact that British houses tend to be subdivided into lots and lots of tiny rooms.

The same is true for his claim that millions of bedrooms are left empty every night, which is an artefact of the fact that British housing statistics use the term ‘bedroom’ when they mean ‘room’. About half of all rooms in England are officially classified as ‘bedrooms’, a proportion which might become realistic the day sloths start to build houses.

The whole idea of using the room count as a proxy for housing supply is a strange one anyway. A ‘proxy’ is something that we use if the thing we are actually interested in is not directly measurable. Housing space, however, is measurable, and very easily so. The graph below shows residential floor space per household, in m2, for Western Europe. Unsurprisingly, the UK comes out last by quite a distance. All this housing space that Dorling wants to redistribute is simply not there.     

Residential floor space (in m2) per household, 2008

-author’s calculation, based on data from Entranze/Enerdata and OECD

The supply side problem of the UK housing market is vastly greater than this graph suggests, though. There is a distributional problem, but not of the kind that Dorling describes. It is the spatial distribution of the housing stock that is awry. Right across the land, there is an almost inverse relationship between house building levels and house price inflation. What little development we have is skewed towards those places where the problem is least bad, while the areas with the steepest house price escalation are also the ones with the lowest building activity. This is because housing demand is concentrated in the most heavily protected areas. The areas around Greater London, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Bath account for a disproportionate share of greenbelt land, and have particularly virulent anti-development campaigners.

And these drawbridge-pullers will be the only beneficiaries if Dorling’s ill-informed ideas catch on. Dorling has just provided them with another convenient excuse. CPRE & Co should send him a warm thank-you note.

Kristian - Just as the number of rooms per capita can be criticised as a measure of housing supply, so can your measure of floorspace per dwelling, because it doesn't tell us floorspace per person. Might UK households not simply have fewer people, on average, than the countries you compare against? Without information on the number of people per dwelling we cannot judge which measure gives us a better indication of supply relative to other countries.
HJ, the graph shows floorspace per household, not dwelling, an important distinction given the tendency (especially in London) to subdivide existing dwellings into smaller and smaller housing units. You're right about differences in household size. But even if you express the figures in per capita rather than per household terms (so that household size doesn't matter), the UK still comes out second to last, just swapping places with Greece. Not a massive improvement. The ideal measure would be one of 'equivalised floorspace', adjusting the raw figures for differences in both household size and economies of scale in the use of that space. We don't have figures for that. But we can tell from what we have that the UK must come out last on that measure: Very little floorspace per capita combined with small average household size. Can't see how that would work out any other way.
Good piece, made me think. There is no doubt that Dorling's analysis is well off the mark. But try to avoid typecasting people as 'lefties'! Sounds like the student union. Doesn't add anything and makes it difficult to object to the usual 'right wing think tank' as a description of IEA.
"The problem, Dorling argues, is purely one of distribution: Some people have too little because others have too much. The solution, then, is not to increase housing supply (an option Dorling repeatedly dismisses), but to redistribute the housing stock" Another problem with this thesis is that housing is not fungible. It matters hugely WHERE the house is. Redistribution is impossible because the commodities being redistributed are not equal. One could of course develop a mechanism for weighting floor-space by the desirability of the locale, and assigning a unit of measurement. Even then, once the redistribution had taken place, it is likely that trades would take place that would upset Mr. Dorlings desired distribution. That's the problem with egalitarian arguments; people have an awkward habit of exchanging what they've been allocated for the allocations of others.
What would happen to aggregate house prices if the Government mandated stricter minimum size and material regulations? As noble prize winning economist William Vickery observed, regulation acts in the same way as tax. Its incidence falls on the value of land. So, we could increase the price for which a new home is built by three fold, and aggregate HP's would not rise. Of course, landowners would cry foul that they are being denied the windfall again from planning regs. But, you see the principle is clear. Free market rules only apply to Capital. Land is not Capital. Economically it is a monopoly. That always need the strictest "regulation". By the way, if land rents who value are State created, were used to pay for State services instead of being privatised, we would have a free market in housing. So much of the need for planning and building regulations would be unnecessary.

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