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Housing and migration in recent years have become amongst the most discussed and divisive issues in British politics. The high cost and low supply of housing alongside growing concerns over migration are central to social and economic debates. These two issues can seem quite distinct, but are in fact connected. Some politicians, such as former Housing Minister Robert Jenrick, have begun to blame high levels of migration for the housing crisis. The reality however, is more nuanced – migration is not the sole, but a contributing factor to the housing crisis, and there are policies that can address both.

On the one hand, the UK has a huge housing shortage, with the Centre for Cities estimating a deficit of roughly four million homes. The gridlocked planning system is a key reason for this. In the current case-by-case system of reviews by councils, political considerations and slow deliberation have meant permissions are drip fed to hopeful developers. 

As a result, developers seek to buy up all available plots for future builds, pushing all but the largest housing developers out of the market. This creates a huge gap between the number of plots of land sold and planning permissions granted for new builds. The top ten house builders in the UK currently build more than 40% of all new homes and have more than one million plots of land in reserve, nearly all of which are left dormant, a practice known as ‘land banking’. Further, of around 350,000 permissions granted since 2010, only 200,000 resulted in construction, around a third below what the Government estimates is needed. The effects of this are potently felt. Prices have risen, and supply has failed to match demand, resulting in a huge burden for aspiring homeowners and existing renters or mortgage owners.

Simultaneously, increased levels of migration have put additional strain on the UK’s already struggling housing stock.

In 2022, for example, net migration to the UK recorded a record 764,000. By contrast, between 2022 and 2023, there was an average of just 234,000 new homes built. With an average of 2.36 occupants per home, the current state of construction in the UK is insufficient to even house new arrivals. This presents a serious challenge. While more recent figures suggest that migration levels are now falling, so too are the levels of new home constructions.  

Whilst some migrants arrive with skills and capital, many do not. A combination of a lack of financial capacity and cultural and linguistic knowledge from some migrants, can result in dependence upon substandard housing. Paired with a slow, bureaucratic resettlement and accommodation process, this means that individuals stay longer in ‘staging post’ temporary accommodation than intended. In 2023, this resulted in the UK spending roughly £3 billion on housing migrants, which is equivalent to a quarter of the country’s total annual foreign aid budget. 

Outside of hotel and initial accommodations, migrants in the UK have significantly higher rates of living in rented accommodation than local-born residents, and are twice as likely to live in overcrowded homes. When examining arrivals in the last five years, these statistics increase dramatically, pushing new arrivals to comprise a well above average level of residence in private accommodation. This often subpar and costly accommodation contributes to a trend of migrants living in unsafe housing that can lead to homelessness. This combined with the increased pressure on the housing market brought by high net new arrivals, can lead to tensions between new groups and established residents which can enter popular political discourse. 

Fortunately, there are policy solutions that can simultaneously address both the housing crisis felt across local-born and migrant populations, as well as fears about the consequences of high levels of migration. 

First, the planning system should be reformed to facilitate more housebuilding. Planning regulations should mandate delivery contracts on bought plots of land to ensure construction begins and prevent ‘land-banking’. To ensure constructions go ahead smoothly, there must also be reliability and consistency in the approval system. If, as part of broader reforms, the central government introduced a more predictable planning permission regime the number of idle building sites could be substantially reduced. 

Second, with the physical and political barriers to construction removed, councils could have a new role by using new housing as a tool to bring migrant and local-born groups together. Local populations should have a say in the design and purposes of new builds, with new projects also geared towards the integration of communities. For instance, Singaporean social housing has often been heralded as one of the world’s leading models. Private investment in shared facilities and streamlining restrictions on planning has led to a huge amount of construction, contributing to eventual greater ownership. They have been designed specifically for communities, with accommodation ranging from ‘emergency’ type for new arrivals, to larger and more developed residences for large families, all of which centre on shared community facilities aimed at promoting engagement and integration. In South Africa too, mixed-income housing with central economic nodes has been used to promote integration since the end of apartheid, exemplifying that social housing can provide more than just simply a living space.

If councils could focus resources on projects more like these following the reform of construction regulation, it could revolutionise social housing by offering new private and public incentives for investment in shops and shared facilities, stimulating growth and narrowing the gulf in the UK housing deficit. More houses, in particular, more effective social housing can not only alleviate pressure on individuals searching for a home, but also enhance social integration and civic engagement, reducing migration tensions.

Kit Mclean is a student at the University of Exeter and is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

[Image: Cultura Creative]