Over the last few years, the British press has been full of stories about property shortages, largely attributing the problem to a lack of building during the recent recession.
But a recent study by the ONS (Office for National Statistics) has found that 1 million existing homes in England and Wales are unoccupied, suggesting a widening divide between those who can afford to leave second homes lying empty, and those who cannot even get on to the housing ladder in the first place.
Some of these 1 million properties are holiday homes, of course, where occupants only spend part of the year. Although these are not technically “empty” as they are still in use, this situation still leads to additional pressure upon a system that is trying to find homes for the many people relying on social housing or rental accommodation.
Other reasons for empty homes include a sudden inheritance, or severely dilapidated housing that is currently uninhabitable.
The Isles of Scilly is the local authority with the greatest percentage of empty housing, where one in three homes is unoccupied. The City of London and Westminster were also cited as hotspots, probably because many London inhabitants are based mainly at family homes outside the city, using a flat as a pied-à-terre on weekdays.
The data has been taken from the period between 2001 and 2011, and demonstrates that there was a 21% increase in empty property in England and Wales over that time.
At the other end of the spectrum are the 543,000 households which contain 6 or more people. These families are squeezed together, often in small and cramped spaces, with several generations sharing a house and many siblings sleeping in one bedroom.
At the same time, home ownership has fallen dramatically in the last few years since the recession. In fact, the recent downturn marked the first time in a century that figures for home owning have declined, with only 64% of people living in owned properties (down 5% since 2001).
What these figures point to is that, while some areas have a chronic shortage of properties (in particular, some areas of London, as well as Birmingham and Bradford), others have a huge amount of property sitting vacant. It seems the distribution of property and people in the UK does not quite add up.
The Shadow Housing Minister, Labour MP Emma Reynolds, blames the current Government for these problems: “The truth is the Government has failed to tackle the growing housing shortage which is central to the cost-of-living crisis. Under David Cameron the number of homes built has fallen to the lowest level in peacetime since the 1920s”. Reynolds advocates the building of new homes to meet the shortfall, with Labour pledging to construct 200,000 new homes a year by 2020 if they are successful at the General Election next year.
The Department for Communities and Local Government countered Labour’s claim, however, stating that they are already tackling the problem, with empty homes figures actually beginning to fall and 450,000 new homes having been built since 2010.
As the battle for votes hots up, it seems that housing could be one of the major issues that will contribute to election results next year.
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