11 million empty homes, in the wrong places

Monday, 3rd March 2014

The Guardian newspaper has just revealed to its credulous readers that EU-wide no fewer than 11 million dwellings stand empty. This apparent news has been endlessly recycled by various well-funded lobbies and think-tanks to suggest there is no housing crisis in the regions that have recently attracted most inward migration. Meanwhile to accommodate 4 million new UK residents, the government has relaxed planning laws to allow the building of 3 million new homes, many on prime agricultural land. At the same time it has sanctioned hydraulic fracturing across England, which will pollute the groundwater in much of the remaining farmland. So presumably news of 11 million empty homes could not come at a better time. We may be able to house everyone and keep our farmland to cope with rising global fuel and food prices, or can we ?

The trouble is most of these empty homes are far from where most jobs are. Indeed many millions are the direct result of international commuting as young people vacate their home towns and villages in Eastern and Southern Europe and head to the wealthier climes of Northern Europe and the British Isles. Many millions more are second homes built for ex-pats in Mediterranean or Black Seas tourist resorts. Just 700,000 of these empty homes are in the UK, most of which are in rundown post-industrial wastelands. At the other end of the scale are prime pieces of real estate in overpriced neighbourhoods bought as investment by international gangsters, so just as many London-based workers have to commute several hours a day or make do with substandard accommodation, sumptuous properties lie empty in Hampstead and Mayfair.

However, what would happen if we could force the government to seize these properties and allocate them to those more in need? For starters demand would greatly exceed supply. There are nowhere near 11 million des-res Hampstead villas waiting for minimum wage workers to take up residence, there are at best a few hundred. London-wide there may be several thousands of empty properties, but many would require renovation and would only temporarily ease an artificial housing shortage. I say artificial because without mass migration, there would be enough houses for all without destroying valuable farmland. Forced repossession of empty luxury properties would have one very positive side effect, it would discourage property speculators (mainly foreign) from distorting the London market and thus deflate the economy and diminish the need for so-many temporary service workers. Like it or not, the whole London economy thrives on recycling wealth generated somewhere else, so once again you either support corporate globalisation and live with its many consequences, or you support more viable alternatives, that inevitably means economic shrinkage in overheating economies.

Few seem prepared to admit the obvious. With huge economic imbalances between regions, a growing rich-poor divide, shrinking middle classes and open labour markets, globalisation has succeeded in simultaneously creating chronic overcrowding and unbearable congestion while leaving other areas in a state of abandon and social decline.

In addition the environmental impact of housing depends very much on habitation. Abandoned properties may decay, but they pollute very little. Inhabited properties inevitably consume water, electricity, produce sewage, add to local retail consumption and traffic (especially if their owners insist on driving everywhere). For every inhabited house we need to provide more shops, schools, hospitals and roads.

Europe's empty properties fall into 4 categories:

  1. Too expensive, only suitable for wealthy property investors
  2. Holiday homes by the sea or on the slopes, not suitable for young city workers
  3. In areas of high unemployment and mass emigration
  4. Substandard, in a state of disrepair

Of these only the fourth could be easily repurposed to cope temporarily with Europe's large population movements, but long-term we should look at smarter solutions. Rather than moving to where big business offers more lucrative employment opportunities, how about restructuring the economy so jobs are more evenly spread. It really makes little sense for more Eastern Europeans to abandon underpopulated regions to add to environmental problems in London, Frankfurt or Stockholm.

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