This website uses cookies so that we can provide you with the best possible experience. If you continue to use this site we will assume that you are happy with this. You can find out more about how we use cookies here. If you would like to know more about cookies, or how you can delete them, click here.

What does population growth mean for house building?

09 July 2014

Joe Kilroy

News of the UK population growing by more than 400,000 in the last year[1] presents a good occasion to dig down into the data on household formation in England and Wales between 2001 and 2011 and consider what it means for planners and housing.

The data shows an increased variation in terms of the size of households[2], with a 25% increase in households with six or more people, while single-person households now make up 30% of total household composition. There has also been an increased variation in tenure types, with a 6% increase in privately rented household spaces; the largest increase of all housing tenure types. The owner occupied category declined from 69% to 64% over the same period. If we are really about to embark on a new era of house-building as the three main political parties claim, this variation in sizes of households and tenure types needs to be borne in mind.

Housing map

Proportions of one person households by region/country in England and Wales, 2001 and 2011


Per cent




England and Wales






South West



South East






East of England



West Midlands



East Midlands



Yorkshire and The Humber



North West



North East




Source: Office for National Statistics

Local Authorities need to consider their own specific situation carefully in the light of this data and decide what it means for their area in terms of housing development. They should ensure that their local plan is robust to the range of housing needs that exist in their area and review that plan regularly to see if changes are needed. Local authorities should also be wary of being overly influenced by national data when assessing local housing needs. Recent research commissioned by the RTPI[3] suggests that due to the influence on the 2011 census of a number of exceptional factors such as increased international migration, the economic downturn and the effects of a long period of poor housing affordability, planning based on census data could lead to an under-provision of housing. Similarly the data on household formation should be given local context. To do so government could help those planning for housing by providing sensitivity analysis at the local authority level so that users can gauge the amount of uncertainty they need to plan for.

Under occupancy – is there a policy lever?

In 2011 there were 1.1 million household spaces unoccupied by usual residents, up from 0.9 million in 2001 (a 21% rise)[4]

The issue of under-occupancy, having more bedrooms than people in an accommodation, has in some quarters been used to fuel the argument against building more homes. According to advocates of this position, if we made better use of existing stock then we would not need to increase house building.  

Are there policy measures that could bring these free spaces in existing stock into use? Facilitating downsizing is a thorny issue. In a civilised society there is no fail-safe way of moving people out of their home to ensure best use of existing stock. Government can support developments for older people[5], but ultimately it comes down to individual choice, and understandably many people want to stay in their home regardless of whether they are using all the bedrooms or not.

There are those who disagree, arguing that that few residents actually want to stay in large under occupied homes. The real problem, they argue, is that there is a dearth of one and two bed houses to cater for the changing needs of ageing residents. If more suitably sized houses were available, the argument states, occupiers of large homes would make civically minded, rational choices about their accommodation preferences, and swap their large under-occupied home for a modestly sized one or two bed.

Apart from the inconsistency of lamenting the lack of one and two bed homes while disagreeing with the need to build more homes, research[6] suggests that the majority of owner occupiers do not want to move. Furthermore the ‘existing stock/under-occupancy’ position disregards the fact that a lot of under-occupied homes are not in areas where the greatest demand for homes exists.

We need to build more houses

The different composition of households and the variation in types of tenure is significant for house building. It means that variety is needed and that local authorities need to be given the resource to gauge what kinds of needs exist wit in their jurisdiction. Details about the types of houses needed, while important, should not distract from the more fundamental issue – the housing sector is not building enough homes of any type.

About Joe Kilroy

Joe Kilroy is Policy Officer at the RTPI and is the policy lead for housing and decentralisation.



[3] /media/830845/rtpi_research_report_-_planning_for_housing_in_england_-_january_2014.pdf


*the group that correlates the highest with under-occupation, although we shouldn’t ignore that there are significant rates of under-occupation amongst the population in general