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.