Are the British really a nation of homeowners?

You might have seen that infographic about the UK rental situation doing the rounds on social media the other week. The authors of the book it was taken from have a very definite stance on what they see as the inequality of the private rental market, but whether or not you agree with them, there are some alarming figures in there.

It’s undeniable that a lot more people are renting these days. As British people we tend to view ourselves as a nation of homeowners, but actually ownership has been declining in recent years. Figures from the recent English Housing Survey (2014-2015) appeared to suggest that the fall in rates of home ownership had abated, but this follows over a decade of decline in which younger people in particular have found the prospect of buying a home increasingly out of reach.

In an article last year, the Office for National Statistics cited a number of reasons for this, but in fundamental terms, our housing stock just isn’t increasing as quickly as our number of households. This doesn’t just reflect an increasing population, but also the fact that our households are getting smaller, with a marked rise in single-occupancy properties over the past 30 years.

Oddly, the rate of home-ownership doesn’t seem to have been slowing down quite so much in other countries. According to figures from Eurostat, while less than ten years ago the UK had owner-occupier numbers that were above EU norms, we’re now well below average, languishing down near the bottom of the table with nations like Germany and Switzerland.

These countries are famous for having cultures of lifelong renting, compared to Britain where we like our housing to be our own property. But is our view of the UK as a historically home-owning nation really accurate?

In her book The Victorian House, writer and social historian Judith Flanders argues that our obsession with property ownership is a relatively modern thing, and that a century or so ago the situation in our cities was very different. She writes:

‘The Victorians as a whole found ownership of less importance than occupancy and display. Although no firm figures exist, most historians estimate that a bare 10 per cent of the population owned their own homes; the rest rented: the poorest paying weekly, the prosperous middle classes taking renewable seven-year leases. This allowed families to move promptly and easily as their circumstances changed, either with the increase and decrease of the size of the family, or to larger or smaller houses in better or less good neighbourhoods as income fluctuated.’ (xxix-xl)

There are all kinds of factors influencing the relative inaccessibility of the UK’s housing stock – particularly for younger buyers. Of course some people may choose to rent for practical reasons, but many others will be hoping that Government initiatives like the Lifetime ISA and penalties for second homeowners will help to improve the situation for first-time buyers. All the same, it’s an intriguing notion that our focus on ownership might be more modern than we think, and that our Victorian forebears had a rental culture that was perhaps closer to that of other European countries.

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