Saturday, November 05, 2016

The Housing Question

Millions of people live in overcrowded and unsuitable homes. Many young people have to live with their parents and the price charged for homes is way beyond the reach of many people. In some places people have to sleep in doorways.

Golf courses take up twice as much land in England as used for housing, according to a calculation. The UK possesses over 2,000 full 18-hole golf courses, along with hundreds of smaller 9-hole and pitch-and-putt courses. Each 18 hole course requires up to 90 hectares of land (including practice courses, clubhouses, car-parking, etc) Of the 850,000 people who play golf regularly at least 75% are men and only 2% are non-white.

Inside Housing blogger, Colin Wiles, estimated that England’s golf courses take up 270,000 hectares, roughly equating to 2% of its 13.4 million hectares in land area. “English golf courses use an amount of land that is equivalent to one fifth of England’s total built up area (10% of England is built upon) and could provide at least eight million homes,” he wrote.

Official figures from the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment indicate that around 10% of England’s land is classified as urban, with most of it taken up by gardens, parks, roads and lakes. Just 2.27% of that is built upon and only 1.1% of it is used for homes.

Only 1.2 percent of England is occupied by residential buildings. Ninety per cent of England is countryside – around 12 million hectares - but only 8.9 million hectares, or 74 percent, is actually used for agriculture, and around half of this is grazing land, mainly occupied by sheep and cattle. He also explains that horse-grazing takes up as much land as half of the built up area of England – enough for millions of new homes. The estimate for the number of horses in England ranges from 600,000 to 1.1 million but  no more than 20,000 of them are professional animals – i.e. involved in the horse-racing industry, eventing or dressage. According to the British Equestrian Trade Association an estimated 3.5  million people ride each year and the vast majority are leisure riders - and 75  percent of them are women and children. But there is also a problem with surplus and unwanted horses, with many reports of horses being dumped on land around the country. According to the British Horse Industry Confederation, the average land grazed by each horse is one hectare. So even using a very conservative estimate, at least 600,000 hectares of England’s countryside is occupied by horses, and probably a lot more. To put this into context, this is almost HALF of the 1.3 million hectares of England that is built upon. That is enough for 18 million homes.

There are 5.4 million cattle, 3.7 million pigs and 14.6 millon sheep in England. 4 million hectares is used for livestock grazing – that’s 66 percent of agricultural land and 30 percent of England’s land mass. This amounts to a density population of around 4 to 5 animals to each hectare. Compare this to Islington, where there are 138 people to every hectare. We, the people, are crammed into our towns and cities at ever-increasng densities, whilst agriculture occupies 66 percent of England’s land mass but contributes less than one percent to our GDP. Just 2 percent of the land we devote to livestock could produce at least 3 million homes.

Around 60 percent of the sheep population comprises breeding ewes whose primary purpose is to produce lambs for slaughter and the odd fleece, which have a value of around £50 apiece. There is little consumer demand for hogget or mutton and my guess is that many of these ewes end up in pet food or are sent abroad. George Monbiot points out that every Welsh hill farmer receives £53,000 in subsidy a year, but New Zealand lamb, which is unsubsidised, is still cheaper than UK lamb, because their farms are much larger and benefit from economies of scale. Why do we persist in trying to feed ourselves when we can buy food cheaper from elsewhere?

Back in the thirties, land could cost as little as 2 per cent of the sale price of the finished property. Many plot-landers in the twenties and thirties bought land at a pittance, cadged materials and used their own sweat equity to make a valued home. By the late fifties land accounted for around a quarter of house values but this has increased to 70 percent today. This proves the point that land, or the lack of it, is the single most important issue in English housing today. Too little land and inadequate supply means rocketing house prices. We should end our obsession with protecting the countryside and hemming our people into towns and cities. We have plenty of land, and even if we built 3 million homes on the countryside it would take up less than one percent of England’s land area and we would still protect the best landscapes.