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Artillery Row

Why Britain needs more empty homes

The UK’s housing sector is straining at the seams; empty units and second houses are a sign of economic health 

When I started writing about Britain’s housing crisis a little over twelve years ago, there was still a widespread refusal to accept that it was even a thing. You could not just start an article or a presentation by talking about “the housing crisis”, and assume that your audience would know what you mean by that, or accept that such a crisis exists. 

That, at least, is no longer true today. A few eccentrics and contrarians aside, almost everyone now accepts that Britain has a housing crisis — and for very obvious reasons. The average house price in England now stands at more than eight times the average gross annual full-time salary, and UK rents are among the very highest in Europe. Therefore, even NIMBYs now have to pretend to care about the issue. (“Look, I’m not against housing! I just want the right kind of housing in the right places!”)

Only 2.7 per cent of the English housing stock is classified as “vacant” at any given time, which is one of the lowest rates in the OECD

Unfortunately, though, there is still a widespread refusal to accept that Britain’s housing crisis is, first and foremost, a crisis of insufficient supply — even though it evidently is. Britain has a much smaller housing stock than most comparable countries. If Britain wanted to match the EU average in terms of housing units per 100,000 people, we would have to build close to 3.5 million additional homes. If we wanted to match the German-speaking part of Europe, we would have to build more like 5 million ones.

This combination — a widespread recognition of the problem, and a refusal to accept the correct diagnosis — creates a demand for snake oil salesmen “solutions”, which create the illusion that we could solve this problem without having to build anything. 

One such recurring canard is the idea that Britain has no overall shortage of homes, but too many foreign oligarchs and oil sheiks, who buy up the country’s housing stock, and then leave it empty.

It is a complete red herring. Only 2.7 per cent of the English housing stock is classified as “vacant” at any given time, which is one of the lowest rates in the OECD. In France and Germany, the vacancy rate is around 8 per cent.

Some vacancies are inevitable, and unproblematic: it would be unreasonable to expect every housing unit to be occupied all the time. People move houses, and unless every new occupier moves in on the same day that the previous occupier moves out, some houses will always be empty some of the time, if only for short periods.

Once we filter out these frictional effects, we end up with a vacancy rate of 0.9 per cent for England as a whole. It is highest (1.5 per cent) in the North East, where the housing crisis is least bad, and lowest in the South East and London (0.7 per cent), where the housing crisis is worst. 

That is probably about as low as it can realistically go, because there can sometimes be a perfectly valid reason for a property to remain unoccupied for a longer period. There may be legal disputes about who owns the house (say, between heirs), or a sales process may stall, and go sour. 

It would be a good thing if we had some more empty houses. It would indicate some slack in the system, some spare capacity, something we would consider desirable in virtually every other sector. We would, for example, not want every chair at every table in every restaurant to be occupied all the time. 

Another canard is second home ownership: the idea that the reason why young people cannot get on the housing ladder is that asset-rich Boomers are hoarding all the existing stock, either as buy-to-let landlords, or as holiday homeowners. 

But the idea that the housing crisis is caused by “housing Kulaks” is just another red herring. There are 2.4 million households in England, or about 9 per cent of the total, who own more than one property. This is one of the lowest second home ownership rates in Europe. 14 per cent of all Belgian households own a second home, as do 15 per cent of German, 18 per cent of French and 27 per cent of Spanish households. 

If I were Housing Secretary, my ambition would be to increase the number of empty houses

More importantly, though: while most multiple property owners in the EU use those second properties for themselves (as holiday and weekend homes), in England, more than two thirds of them are landlords, who rent them out to tenants. These people are not taking any housing units away from anyone else. They are just shifting them from one sector to another, which should be broadly neutral in terms of overall housing affordability: it makes it slightly more expensive to buy, but slightly cheaper to rent. 

Only 3 per cent of all households in England own more than one home for personal use (and 43 per cent of those homes are not in the UK).

Of course, if those 3 per cent all owned homes in the same few seaside towns in Cornwall or Devon, this may well be an issue for those towns. Would it help the locals if second home ownership were banned, or taxed out of existence? 

It may help some, but it would come at a cost. Having a cluster of holiday and weekend homes brings a guaranteed income stream to an area. The people who own them will probably not just be sitting in their holiday homes all day when they are there. They will go to pubs, restaurants and shops, and consume leisure services. They help sustain a local tourism industry. So why not just build enough homes for both the locals and the tourists? 

In a prosperous country, owning a holiday home should not be considered a frivolous indulgence, but a realistic aspiration. 

If I were Housing Secretary, my ambition would be to increase the number of empty houses, and to turn Britain into a nation of second homeowners.  

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