Homes crisis is not the elderly's fault

Yes, older people have spare rooms in their homes but the real answer to the shortage is not to force them to downsize, says Tony Fyson

Tony Fyson: "Nudge policies that encourage older people to leave large homes would be a risk". Borya photo
Tony Fyson: "Nudge policies that encourage older people to leave large homes would be a risk". Borya photo

This month was not the first time that the supposed under-occupation of houses has been in the media spotlight, although it is unprecedented for the elderly to be so roundly blamed as the culprits. In the post-war years, a comparable - if more excusable - housing shortage, mainly arising from the large quantity of bomb-damaged property, provoked an outcry similar to that just precipitated by the Intergenerational Foundation.

The foundation is a new organisation that "seeks to promote the rights of younger and future generations in British policy-making". Unfortunately, in promoting the rights of the young, it seems to have wilfully overlooked those of the old. The title of its first report, Hoarding of Housing, reflects its underlying insensitivity by implying that elderly people who stay in the family home after their children have left are selfishly depriving others of their rightful space.

In fact, they seem to be holding on to the stabilising effect of familiar places and friends. It is precisely those things that make a house a home, a distinction that the report seems barely to recognise. A long-occupied home often means comforting memories, space for visitors and the setting up of hobby rooms. The crude counting of unslept-in bedrooms means little to most of their owners. These extra, irregularly used bedrooms are growing partly because it suits the elderly to have space to use flexibly.

Does the foundation really know so little about the comforts of settled surroundings and the trauma of moving house, unwillingly or otherwise? It may not be advocating compulsory home downsizing, but the flavour of its views leaves a nasty taste.

Commentators and politicians across the political spectrum have hurried to repudiate the foundation's prescriptions, which include withdrawing some of the "universal" state benefits enjoyed by those living in houses worth more than £500,000, imposing a new property value tax and abandoning council tax concessions for single occupants. Adopting these and other sinisterly termed "nudge" policies to encourage older people to leave their large homes would be a grave political risk given the rising power of the grey vote. For the government, housing minister Grant Shapps has said that he does not want older voters "taxed or bullied out of their homes".

Yet in the context of housing shortage, there would clearly be social benefit if the growing imbalance between large families and large accommodation were somewhat redressed. There is surprisingly little emphasis in the report on financial assistance for those who want to downsize. It is no good protesting that the government cannot afford any new spending, since extra social costs will arise from the lack of a better housing fit. Some councils and housing associations offer cash rewards for tenants planning to downsize.

Alarmist talk about the country's 25 million unused bedrooms is meaningless since nearly all are used for some form of storage and occasional activity. Coldly dispassionate analysis may deem this an inefficient use of a scarce resource, but tackling that scarcity is the real priority.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues and TCPA trustee.

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