As we enter the harshest season of the year, reminders of just how tough it is to be homeless are brought home by advertisements and appeals linked to Christmas and the spirit of charitable goodwill. As we are all too aware, a number of those unfortunates are Service Veterans who, for various reasons, find themselves on the streets in spite of the desire by service charities, including Veterans Gateway, to try to help.
Quite apart from any problems to do with local government support for the homeless, one of the main problems this country faces is, according to many experts, a simple shortage of housing. As part of finding a solution to the question of how we build more houses, the government is carrying a public consultation based upon a publication titled: “Technical consultation on updates to national planning policy and guidance”, with a deadline for returns and comments on the 7th of this month.
This document states that the UK needs to be building some 300,000 homes per year for the foreseeable future, and at least until about 2030 if it is to address the predicted levels of demand for homes. That is to say, about 4,000,000 homes by about 2030, able to accommodate an extra 9,000,000 people (based upon Government home-occupancy rates of 2.33 per house).
This is based upon current estimates of population growth and increased demand for homes – and it is some of these latter areas which start to raise concerns amongst some observers. Their worries are twofold. Firstly, we as a society have to start to ask why it is that there are so many people living on their own, and especially the very young, including single-mothers in their late teens. Have we in some way failed to look after these people such that they feel they want to live on their own?
But secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, we have to ask if we have the space to construct all these new homes. Because if we do not (based on current criteria for what constitutes a decent home or dwelling), then we need to take a very long and hard look at the number of people living on this island.
The UK as a whole has an area of 248,500 sq/km. This compares with France’s 551,000, Spain’s 498,000, Germany’s 357,000 and Italy’s 301,000 sq/km. But when you look at England as such, the figure falls to a mere 130,000 sq/km. (Not much bigger than Iceland with a population of 350 thousand).
England, therefore, is less than 24% of the size of France; i.e. France is over four times the size of England, as is Spain, while Germany has three times our land area.
(It is important to distinguish England from the rest of the UK, for this is where the bulk of the population growth is taking place, whether by natural growth or immigration. Just as migrants to Europe do not want to end up in the less-developed areas of the east (or indeed in old eastern Germany rather than the wealthier west), people when questioned generally say it is England they want to come to rather than any other region of the UK. )
The population of the UK is today is 66.5m and the population density is 275 people per square km. That density figure is the highest of all the countries in Europe barring Belgium and Holland; 233 in Germany, 192 in Italy, and 104 in France. (Discounting the likes of city-states such as Monaco.)
However, if we look specifically at England, with a population of some 55m, the population density figure jumps to 427 people per sq.km. That puts us at about 28th on the list of world population densities. (It has to be “about” as not all the lists agree with each other!) That is to say, England is by far the most densely populated mainstream country in Europe, well above Belgium and Holland even.
If we were to take that density and then apply it to the predicted increase in the UK population (based upon the number of homes to be built), we can estimate the amount of land required for those homes would be ended to accommodate that increase. Based upon the overall UK density it would be 32,700 sq. km. However, we know that the increase is most likely to be in England, so let us take a sensible percentage of the total increase based upon current patterns which produce a total of 7.6m more people.
If we then take the higher English population density and apply it to the 7.6m total we arrive a land requirement of about 18,000 sq. km – which is about 14% of the area of England, or in old-fashioned terms, about a seventh of this country. At the other end of the scale, if we were to assume that we could build another Greater London, then all of those people would fit into that area – with a bit of room to spare. But where would – or could – we build such a city?
If we go for a sensible (British) compromise and assume that a fair proportion of the new people will live in cities and towns, we can re-calculate the land requirements based upon, say, 4m people living in urban communities with a density of about 3,500 persons per sq. km. This would produce an overall real-estate requirement of about 10,100 sq. km of land for new houses. To give a feel for the true size of 10,100 sq. km of land, here are a few comparisons:
The Isle of Wight is 380 sq. km (so the new buildings would cover 26 times the area of the island)
Apart from Yorkshire (16,000 sq.km), all counties in England are smaller than 10,000 sq. km, with the next biggest being between 6,000 and 7,000 sq.km. Most are in fact only 2,000 – 2,500 sq. km.
So we might need to build over an area the size of, say, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire and Sussex to accommodate all these new homes. That said, the developments would, in fact, be mostly based upon existing urban centres for these are where things like transport hubs, local government and welfare support networks are already developed. But you can be sure that few of the existing local governments would be equipped to deal with such an expansion with all the increased demands upon their services.
One more statistic that is worth looking at in this context might be that of the total population expansion of the UK over, say, the next 12 years, compared with the new homes said to be needed in that time. One reliable source suggests there will be about 70.6 million people by 2030, an increase of 4 million. The number of new homes said to be needed during the next 12 years will accommodate some 9m people. So who are those additional 5 million and where are they going to come from?
These are not migrants or new births etc. for those are all taken care of in the general increase of 4m. In fact, if we take the planners’ figures at face value, these have to be people who are already in the UK, either in existing accommodation but who want to move out to their own home, or who are homeless today and who would (presumably) want to be in their own home.
However, this last group is not a “simple single category” of people. They include those who are un-intentionally homeless or who are about to be evicted, as well as those sleeping rough. The problem is that whereas the figures for homelessness are typically calculated on the basis of a “household” (meaning more than one person), “rough sleepers” are counted as individuals. But even this last category (into which many Forces Veterans fall), is not properly understood. For example, whereas it is estimated by one agency that about 4,800 people were sleeping rough in the whole of England in 2016, the same agency reported that 8,100 people were seen sleeping rough at some point in London in 2016/17.
One of the main barriers to getting any of these people into decent accommodation is going to be cost. At the moment, building land in the UK is very expensive and forms a significant part of the base cost of any development; as the demand for such land increases, it is inevitably going to become even more expensive. In fact, land-price inflation is running at several times the rate of house-price inflation and some developers say it is perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to building new homes today. They simply cannot afford to develop an expensive bit of land that they might have bought a few years ago if the profit margins they get on the houses are too small.
And so we come to one of the most puzzling of all problems facing the whole house-building conundrum in this country. As we build more houses, increased supply will start to affect prices which might start to fall. However, to keep building, developers will need to buy more land and to build on ground that is more difficult to work on. So just as prices start to fall, their costs will start to increase, making it less likely that they will want to take on such projects in the first place.
So where does all this leave our homeless Veterans both over Christmas and into next year? With little prospect of any immediate change, to be frank. In fact, probably the only way some of them are going to be reached and helped is by way of the Forces Community at large looking out for them. If you know of someone who does not want to be on the streets, or indeed even if they choose to be there (and some have of course made that choice), then we can help by either offering them direct support, or trying to get help to them via SSAFA, the Legion and other charities as many are now linked to the “central clearinghouse” called Veterans Gateway.