Housing: Where Will We All Live?

by Austin Williams

People need housing; housebuilders build houses. In a capitalist market, you’d think that this straightforward equation was fairly easy to resolve, and yet working out the maths has become incredibly complicated at every level.

The homelessness charity Shelter claimed that, by the end of 2023, there were 309,000 people without a home and living in temporary accommodation.[1] That same year, net migration reached 672,000 making the government’s pledge to build 300,000 homes seem like a drop in the ocean. (As an aside, the construction industry only managed to finish 75 percent of the 300,000 target homes anyway). If we assume three people per home, that’s a cumulative shortfall of 150,000 homes.

But unfeasible targets are not the only thing driving the crisis in the housing sector. Industry-wide uncertainty and confusion in the construction industry, post-Grenfell has led to major developers going bankrupt, leaseholders faced with untenable cladding debts, fewer apartments being built to avoid draconian regulations, homeowners threatened with extortionate insurance and service charges, and creeping doubt about whether buying a home is a good investment or a financial millstone. Added to this, heavy-handed environmental regulations have seen “housing supply halve to around 120,000 homes a year.” As a final blow to the industry, during lockdown, around 30,000 foreign national construction workers went home, many never to return.

These are just some of the external policy and regulatory impacts affecting homebuilding today. But the construction industry has homegrown problems that need to be addressed if it is to provide enough homes for those in need, as well as serving those who simply want to up-size, relocate or rent out.

Housing requires infrastructure, from roads to parks, sewers, schools and services. A planning application for 5,000 homes in Cambridge has been delayed because the Environment Agency claimed there was insufficient water to supply them,[2] so Gove’s plans for 150,000 homes in the same area are undoubtedly a non-starter. And yet, over 65 percent of the £4.2 billion Housing Infrastructure Fund remains unspent after 6 years.

No wonder that we see painfully slow progress in housebuilding and the decline in the construction industry in general. It is ironic that the so-called Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) programme that envisaged modular housing units prefabricated on factory production lines has produced very little in an industry that still builds by putting one brick on top of another. Actually, most of these innovative MMC production facilities have gone into liquidation; local councils have gone to the brink of bankruptcy on the back of financing off-site production companies; and we will all have to pick up the £2.6 million tab on so-called “specialist” companies like Modulus,[3] who promised global solutions to the housing crisis but managed only to construct six houses in Bristol, funded by the UK Research and Innovation arm of the government.

While the construction industry tries to deal with its economic problems by redundancies and bankruptcies; the big new idea in architecture schools is “degrowth” which is a fancy way of avoiding the problem and pretending its everyone else’s fault. Degrowth takes as read that we cannot hit our headline targets… and it celebrates the fact. It advocates reducing housing need rather than increasing housing provision by seizing unoccupied housing stock, abolishing demolition to avoid building new, promoting communal housing and shared living to eke more out the lack of facilities, smaller homes, “frugal innovation” and a “focus away from housing.”[4]

A recent academic book advocated developing “low level, low impact, small scale, decentralised, compact settlements.”[5] Such degrowth advocates want us to de-urbanise, not suburbanise. The argument is that, if we cannot build our way out of the housing crisis – and, as far as degrowth activists are concerned, it would be ecologically unreasonable and unethical to build our way out of problems – then we have to live with less and learn to live with the pain. By this logic, we are being told to move from a criticism of under-provision to a critique of over-consumption.

So that’s the housing situation in a nutshell. Maybe it’s not such a simple equation after all, but that doesn’t mean that the solution is any less crucial. To that end, we have convened an online panel debate on the issue on Tuesday 30th April from 7:00pm – 8:30pm. A free event. All welcome.

At “Housing; Where Shall We All Live?” the panel will explore a range of housing issues – planning, policy, principles and politics – to try to make sense of it all. Hopefully, even with construction in the doldrums, we can start to build some ideas to tackle the criminal lack of progress on this issue by successive governments.

Speakers include:
Shaun Bailey, Lord Bailey of Paddington, chair House of Lords’ Housing Committee; Member of the Cost of Living Working Group
Simon Cooke, author, “In Defence of a New Suburbia“; ex-member, Local Government Association Housing, Transport and Environment Board
Helen MacNeil, principal, HA! Honest Architecture; consulting architect, Shedkm
Calvin Po, Strategic Design, Dark Matter Labs, architecture critic, The Spectator
chair: Austin Williams, director, Future Cities Project; author, China’s Urban Revolution

See EVENTBRITE: Housing: Where Will We All Live?


[1] Shelter, At least 309,000 people homeless in England today, Press Release. 14 Dec 2023.
[2] Gatten, Emma (2023) ‘Not enough water’ to supply thousands of planned new homes in Cambridgeshire, Daily Telegraph, 24 July
[3] Battersby, Matilda (2024) Modular housing firm Modulous enters liquidation after buyer deal fails to materialise, Building Design, 30 January
[4] Schneider, Francois and Nelson, Anitra (2018) Housing for degrowth, Institutionalisation of Degrowth and Post-Growth: The European Level Seminar — Brussels, 17 September
[5] Schneider, François (2018) Housing for degrowth narratives, Routledge

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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