TO LIVE AND DIE; TO RENT AND BUY;
Crisis?! What crisis? We get told by award-winning local architect Richard Swann about the true nature of the little issue of failing to provide housing for future generations, and what might be done to avert this.
Top images: Dutch company Fiction Factory's Wikkelhouse; a cardboard micro-home/Hackney in the 1970s
Children of the 60’s will remember the Monty Python sketch of 4 old Yorkshiremen bragging about their humble origins:
“There were 150 of us living in a shoebox in t’ middle of t’ road.”
“Cardboard box? Aye, you were lucky… and you tell the young people of today and they wouldn’t believe you”.
No we didn't believe them.
These days over 30% of homes have just a single occupent and the percentage is rising. In the last 10 years the 45 to 64 baby boomer age group living alone increased by nearly a quarter. In contrast, Generation Y, the 25 to 44 age group, fell by 18%. In Generation Z, those under 25 years old, half of 20-24 year olds still live at home now, a record. Affordability of moving out of the parental home is clearly a pressing issue for many young adults.
Cardboard housing is no joke. In Holland wikkelhouse.com are producing micro cardboard houses for £55,000. Innovative ‘Tiny Homes’ designs are springing up across Europe as a reaction to the overpriced, wasteful shoeboxes currently offered by major house builders. In Frome, community enterprise Edventure are exploring semi-independent micro-homes to help tackle the housing crisis for young adults, marketing affordable timber shepherd hut-like structures. Whether it’s a viable and desirable answer to the long term affordability crisis remains to be seen, but there appear to be few options that preserve the ability of young people to live alone with any degree of autonomy.
Pre-Monty Python sketch 'The Four Yorkshiremen'
The cost of living independently has soared. Average rentals in London per person is £1500 per month plus council tax, consuming half of average incomes in the capital. Buying a house in London will set you back on average £524,000, more than double that In the South West. No surprise that moving here is so attractive for those that can move their job or commute, but adds pressure on local housing supply. Affordability is accelerating away from locals on local income levels. In the last year alone average house prices have risen by 5% across England, excluding London. According to the ONS, the ratio of borrowings to salary for first time house buyers has risen from 2.7 to 4.5 over the last 20 years. The National House Builders Federation put the figure currently at 6.7.
Frome provides an interesting local example, with very little distortion in statistics from international migration or further education, which tend to impact on statistics. The town has long been an attractive and affordable place for underpaid creatives and commuters alike, lying in an area of lower house prices, away from higher prices in Bath and Bristol. But even in Frome average house prices have climbed above the neighbouring towns of Trowbridge, Westbury and Shepton Mallet. In the last 20 years average Frome prices have increased 300% while average incomes rose by just 30% for those in work.
With increasing pressure on land and housing costs, are we likely to see Monty Python’s cardboard box living?
Edventure Frome at work
Lack of affordability has contributed to emerging living patterns among young people. Studies by demographic-research.org and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have illustrated the shift towards sharing with others outside a family among young adults. Of particular relevance here is the greater tendency in the UK, as compared with other developed countries, for young mothers to live as a lone parent and young fathers to be non-co-resident. Young men, who typically stay longer in the parental home than young women, are increasingly living outside of any family, with other young single men. Marriage and co-habitation are deferred. There is a clear correlation between cohabitation and owner occupation, with singles living predominantly in social and private rental. These trends tend to be presented as a largely positive development, from roughly ages 18- 25 years people examine the life possibilities open to them and gradually arrive at more enduring choices in love, work and world views. But lack of affordability could permanently change life opportunities for Generation Z.
Over 80% of new dwellings are built by the private sector in the UK on speculative developments, mostly designed and sold as family homes. In Frome the Edmund Park development soon to be constructed will offer 214 dwellings of which just 24 are single bedroom units, the other 190 are family houses. With house prices increasingly unaffordable, many are likely to become shared by groups of men in particular from buy-to-let landlords.
If affordability and appropriate housing supply are not tackled soon with radical policies to double the number of appropriate dwellings being built, the young people who share houses now will still be sharing when they are in middle age, creating a very different society and culture.
An increasing number of young adults across the UK are turning to more affordable living options such as caravans, narrow boats and small micro-homes, or merely remaining with their parents.
Richard Swann is an award-winning architect of Bruges Tozer Architects.
He is Chairman of Frome and District Civic Society and the Director of Frome Cohousng