Julian Mercer investigates more flaws in the Government’s housing policy, which seeks to build new homes for 80,000 ‘ghosts’ and ignores the impact of Brexit

The findings of an official inquiry into population data has undermined the Government’s policy to build its way out of the housing crisis. 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) stands accused by its own watchdog of significantly over-estimating the number of residents in university towns. This discrepancy in the data is causing local authorities across the land to approve many more houses than are needed. 

In its report, the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) says that the ONS takes insufficient account of local evidence. However, it also acknowledges that its attempts to improve data have been frustrated by Government diktat.

The issue was highlighted by Byline Times last December when the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) – backed by cross-party MPs and the Conservative West Midlands Mayor Andy Street – persuaded the OSR to investigate the situation in Coventry. 

Central to the complaint was the work of Merle Gering, chair of Keep Green Belts Green, who discovered huge discrepancies between the ONS data and local population measures. “If there are vast numbers of people pouring into Coventry,” said Gering, “they don’t vote, don’t go to A&E, don’t have babies or send children to school and they don’t make waste”.

80,000 Ghosts

Gering blames the problem on a false assumption that students, especially from overseas, remain in Coventry after graduating to start families and occupy thousands of new homes. This, however, discounts how many students move on from the city after their studies end.

Coventry receives more than 16,000 foreign scholars every year and has one of the highest student populations in the UK. But its two universities told Gering that the vast majority of these students do not remain in Coventry once they have completed their studies. He believes that the ONS are therefore over-counting “80,000 ghosts who leave no shadow”.

The impact of the ONS data on policy is considerable. Whereas the 2011 Census showed that Coventry’s population had risen by a modest 5% to 317,000 people, subsequent ONS estimates predict that the city’s population will mushroom by almost one-third in the next decade. As a result, an initial local plan for 11,000 new houses was rejected by planning inspectors who insisted that 42,000 should be built.

“Large amounts of the historic Forest of Arden – precious for history, biodiversity and providing the green lungs of a crowded urban area – have been removed from green belt”, CPRE wrote to the OSR. “It is a case of bad data leading to bad decisions.”

50 Towns And Cities Over-Estimating

The OSR has now agreed, gently condemning the ONS for estimates which “did seem to be inconsistent with, and potentially higher than, local evidence would suggest”. 

It describes the “limitations and issues” of counting foreign students and, most significantly, says that the problem reaches much further than Coventry. It therefore urged the ONS “to investigate the root and scale of the issue associated with cities with large student populations”.

Gering believes that 50 towns and cities across the UK may be similarly affected by the over-estimate of student numbers. 

In the wake of the OSR’s findings, Guildford has announced that it will review its local plan. Many other councils are now expected to follow suit. A judicial review later this month will decide whether Oxford’s substantial student community has contributed to a huge increase in the county’s housing targets.

With millions homeless or on council waiting lists, there is no doubt that the country is in the grip of a major housing crisis. In 2017, Theresa May’s Government pledged to solve the problem by building 300,000 new homes a year which, she argued, “would slow the rise in housing costs so that more ordinary working families can afford to buy a home”. But four years of increasing supply have had the opposite effect on house prices. 

Last month, Nationwide reported the highest level of housing inflation since 2007, at 10.9%. With interest rates at record lows, property has become an increasingly valuable form of investment, triggering huge growth in multiple ownership. This is especially true of second homes and AirBnBs. 

There are also far more empty homes, not least in Coventry where vacant properties have doubled in 18 months. And yet, there is scant evidence that increased supply has done anything to address homelessness or housing waiting lists.

Reducing Need

The stabilising of average household size and falling life expectancy rates may actually be reducing the demand for housing and some economists calculate that we have been over-supplying by as much as 80,000 homes a year. 

The ONS has tried to reflect these demographic changes and its most recent household projections do indeed suggest a housing need closer to 200,000 new homes a year.

But the Government insists that local authorities cannot use the latest data. According to the OSR, “this means any methodological changes made by ONS to improve the population estimates are not reflected in the statistics which inform housing need” and “the over-estimation of population is driving policy targets in a different direction to local priorities”.

In Coventry, protestors welcomed the regulator’s findings, but are sanguine about its implications. “While it’s great news that we finally have it in black and white that the ONS over-estimated Coventry’s population growth,” says Andy Street, “it has come too little, too late for so much of the city’s precious greenbelt that has already been scythed off by developers for housing.”

The the full impact of Brexit and the Coronavirus crisis on housing need has not yet been addressed.

The Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence – a think-tank with advisors including the director-general of the OSR and the Chief Economist of the Bank of England – believes that a dramatic fall in immigration will transform ONS population estimates.

“Instead of an increase of about 350,000 over the year, the total population falls by more than 1.3 million… if this is even close to being accurate, this is the largest fall in the UK resident population since the Second World War,” it explained.

The hospitality, farming and retail sectors are already aware of the shortage of economic migrants but, far from pausing housing policy to review a rapidly changing situation, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is increasing the pressure to ‘build back better’. Its latest legislation means that towns such as Coventry will be told to increase housing targets by a further 35% and cut the number of planning appeals.

It is an approach that leaves Gering appalled: “Need means what (Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary) Robert Jenrick wants it to mean. It has nothing to do with how we want communities to look.”


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