George Monbiot’s crusade against homebuilding

If George Monbiot had lived during the Irish Potato Famine, he would presumably have developed a ‘Potato Footprint’ index, to show that the hunger of the poor is caused by the excessive potato consumption of the rich. He would then have proposed an elaborate system of selective taxes and subsidies to discourage potato consumption among the rich. Meanwhile, he would have shouted abuse at those whose proposals aimed at simply allowing more potatoes to be grown.

At least that was exactly the approach to housing policy he proposed a while ago:

‘I suggest a new concept: housing footprints. Your housing footprint is the number of bedrooms divided by the number of people in the household. Like ecological footprints, it reminds us that the resource is finite, and that, if some people take more than they need, others are left with less than they need.’

Monbiot’s whole approach is based on the following ‘fact’:

‘The issue is surplus housing – the remarkable growth of space that people don't need. [...] Nearly 8m homes – 37% of the total housing stock – are officially under-occupied.’

Reading this, I wondered what ‘officially under-occupied’ means, because whenever I have a foreign visitor, one of the first things they ask is: ‘Why is everything so small here?’ And the numbers are on their side. The average floor space of newly built dwellings in the UK is just 76 m2. Everywhere else in the EU-15, it is well over 80 m2, and well over 100 m2 in the Benelux states, France, Germany and Denmark. The contrast is more extreme when looking at average room size, because British dwellings tend to be subdivided into more, and thus smaller rooms – but more on this in a second.  

Monbiot’s figures for under-occupancy come from the English Housing Survey (that’s what he means by ‘official’). The EHS has a formula, the so-called ‘Bedroom Standard’, to determine the number of bedrooms a household ‘needs’. A couple needs one bedroom, a couple with two teenage boys needs two, a couple with a teenage boy and a teenage girl needs three, and so on. When the number of bedrooms a household actually has deviates from the number it supposedly needs, the EHS classifies the dwelling to be either overcrowded or under-occupied.  

Anyone who has ever been house-hunting in Britain knows how generously the term ‘bedroom’ is being used. A bedroom is effectively any room that has not been specifically converted into something else, so a living room or a workroom can be bedrooms in name. That makes the Bedroom Standard a fairly austere definition of housing need, which explains why only 3% of all households undercut it (=‘overcrowding’) while many exceed it.

Even if we accepted this weird definition for a moment, it would not provide the policy conclusions Monbiot fantasises about, because overcrowding and under-occupancy are inversely correlated. The region with the highest rate of overcrowding (London) has the lowest rate of under-occupancy, and the region with the highest rate of under-occupancy (the South West) has the lowest rate of overcrowding. The lump-of-housing fallacy, so to speak.

But the Bedroom Standard is itself a flawed measure. It is purely based on the number of nominal bedrooms, with no information about either the size of these rooms, or their actual use. Monbiot only uses it to sustain his delusion that the housing shortage is a distributional issue.

At least, if the Monbiot-tax on ‘housing footprints’ comes and you want to avoid it, here’s an easy way: reduce the number of rooms in your home by knocking down the non-load bearing walls. 

Do I need a spare bedroom? I haven't got one. So maybe I'm under-supplied with housing. Unless you count my office as a bedroom, in which case I would be under-supplied with office space. I wonder if Monbiot is familiar with W.H. Hutt's book 'The Theory of Idle Resources'? It explains why if you have a spare shirt at home it isn't necessarily 'idle'. I must admit I do sometimes agonise over the optimum number of spare socks I should possess. But I regard it as my public duty to prioritise agonising over the euro zone.
Very good example of the misuse of statistics by people who don't fully understand them and start off with a bias. As you point out, rooms spare in Surrey are not much help in Haringey. But reading his piece gives me the shivers at his assumptions about the state and about 'needs'.If people own their own houses and want to have a billiard room, sauna, gym, home cinema etc, whose business is it but theirs? One person I know has 50 pairs of shoes. Should there be an excess shoe tax?
George Monbiot quotes DECC’s annual fuel policy statistics as saying: "5.3 Household occupancy In England there was a 45 per cent increase in the number of under occupied households between 2003 and 2008." But this looks like an enormous change in just a few years (how many people would have had to move to larger homes to achieve that?). So I thought I’d check the figures. George Monbiot indeed quoted DECC correctly, but where did DECC get its figures? It doesn't say, and certainly the Annual Housing Survey numbers don't bear this out. The Annual Housing Survey 2002-03 gave the percentage of under occupied houses as 35.7 % of the total housing stock or about 7.3 million homes (averaged over 2000-2003) (p27 of the 2002-03 edition).The current edition (linked above) gives 36.1 % under occupancy, or 7.8 million homes in 2008-09 (p27). This is less than a 7 % rise in numbers and the percentage of under occupied homes has hardly changed at all.

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