The rise in vacant properties exposes the housing shortage myth

Empty homes in Accrington, Lancashire

Figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government released on Monday poured cold water on the widespread misconception that Britain’s housing crisis results from a lack of houses.

Official stats revealed that the number of long-term vacant properties in England rose by 5.3 per cent in the 12 months to October, to a total of 216,186.

In London, where housing supply is scarce, the growth of empty homes was double the national rate, increasing 11 per cent to 22,481.

This complements other evidence showing that housing stock levels have consistently risen at a higher rate than population growth, even in the past couple of decades – even in London.

Source: Positive Money (using ONS and MHCLG data)

According to the economic laws of supply and demand, this means we should be seeing an increase in housing affordability, rather than the rocketing prices that characterise millennials’ existence.

So why are homes so unaffordable?

We can’t think about the housing crisis in simple economic terms, where too many people are chasing too few homes. To understand the housing crisis, you’ve got to look at it as a broader political and economic problem – with finance and ownership both playing key roles.

Source: Positive Money (using Nationwide housing survey and Bank of England data)

In Britain’s financialised economy, homes are treated as a speculative asset, rather than simply as places to live.

In an era of low business profitability for advanced economies like the UK, housing is often the easiest and safest bet for those looking to expand their wealth, as property prices seem almost guaranteed to rise at a higher pace than interest rates, which have remained historically low throughout the past decade.

Correspondingly, banks love lending money against houses. Both in the decades leading up to and following the crash, around half of bank lending flowed into property.

Ultimately, houses are worth however much banks are willing to lend. Banks, which create new money simply by lending, are essentially unconstrained in the amount of money they can conjure to bid up property prices.

The nature (or lack) of regulation favours those who already own property, making it easier for buy-to-let landlords or wealthy speculators to snap up homes, keeping these empty as assets rather than places for people to live.

First time buyers, who are usually limited to borrowing only four or five times their annual income, are outbid by those who already own homes, who can leverage them as collateral and perhaps also use their rental income to borrow much higher amounts.

Both banks and homeowners are reliant on ever-rising house prices, otherwise they risk going into negative equity and becoming insolvent, with devastating consequences for the economy.

In the absence of productive investment, this housing bubble is driving the UK economy. To prevent it bursting, politicians create artificial scarcity. This means the state protecting the rights of existing property owners and speculators hoarding housing stock, a reality that is reflected in policies like anti-squatting laws that have made occupying empty properties more difficult.

Property developers love the dominant housing shortage story as it means councils will often let them build luxury developments, in the misguided hope that simply building more homes – any homes – will ease the crisis.

The “shortage” rhetoric also lets the property-owning class off the hook, instead allowing politicians and property owners to reiterate the toxic “Britain is full” myth, blaming immigrants instead of speculators.

So if we want to combat the housing crisis, what story should we tell? The common sense maxim that no one should own more than one home until everyone owns a home would be a good place to start.

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.