Are we Abandoning the Suburbs?

Is the UK market abandoning the suburbs? The housing supply chain appears to be in two main camps.

On the right, politically as well as metaphorically, we have the low-rise housing supply. Mainly delivered by house builders, developed on sites outside the green belt, often on arable land, mainly selling detached dwellings and characterised by high car ownership and low amounts of affordable housing.

On the left, again politically as well as metaphorically, we have urban housing supply. mainly delivered on brown field land, mainly by developers, and increasingly delivered by local authorities and housing associations. This is characterised by being dense, low, medium and high rise, with high amounts of affordable housing and low car ownership.

Housing Starts + Completions

The graph is based on DCLG published figures for housebuilding starts and completions for the last decade. I have taken the figures for the major urban centres and compared them to the rest of the housing supply. The trend is clear. Urban housing is growing as a proportion of housing supply over the last decade, even in the downturn between 2007-2010. The proportion of urban housing continued to rise even when the overall numbers of supply dropped.

This tells me that the urban market is stronger than the suburban one, and a more reliable one in the long term. The urban centres include Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, etc as well as London.

The current position is that the urban market accounts for 24% of starts in 2013, the highest in a decade, and with many new developments in the planning system this growth appears to be reliable.

Is the UK heading to the cities? Has the housing market awoken to the promise of living in cities? Have people come to realise that a lengthy commute to the suburbs, to the garden that you never have time to enjoy, to a partner who is at least as tired as you are, is no way to live? Have we fallen out of love with the suburbs? Probably not, at least not yet. But this trend, coupled with the decline in car ownership in most Western economies, does suggest that a quarter of the market is moving in this direction.

While this charge is being led by London, with 73% of urban completions in 2013 in the capital, 69% of starts in the same year were in London, suggesting that demand in other urban centres is growing faster than the London rate.

It will be interesting to see whether the typical housebuilder supply of housing in the suburbs regrows to take up UK housing demand or are we going to see a change in direction in the market towards more urban, inherently more sustainable living?


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