Home alone trend is a nightmare for urban planners

Housing future: This sceptred isle is getting very crowded. Can room be made for 4.4 million more households?
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The Independent Online
The tendency for people to remain single for longer than they used to has been identified as one of the reasons for an unprecedented growth in the number of one-man or one-woman households in Britain.

The Secretary for the Environment, John Gummer, launching a debate on accommodation yesterday, linked the increase in single households and marriage break-ups to record demand for housing.

He tried to focus debate on how to supply the 4.4 million new houses his department estimates Britain will need in the next 20 years.

Almost 80 per cent - about 3.5 million - of these homes will be occupied by just one person, according to his department's projections.

Mr Gummer told the Royal Town Planning Institute's annual conference in Brighton: "Even if, like me, you deplore the damage done to family life, and the institution of marriage, you cannot ignore the consequences or hope they will go away. All of us need to face them squarely. They mean more homes are needed.

"They mean a demand for more space, greater pressure to build in the countryside, to expand in the towns, to increase density and live more handily for work and play."

He looked forward to a frank discussion about the social and environmental effects of the single way of life. Such a debate should embrace churches, businesses, social organisations, local and national governments, Mr Gummer proposed.

"We need to admit that, in many instances, government's role is not a central factor," he said. "The forces at work are deep-rooted cultural changes which have been evolving for generations. These are susceptible to influence only if the whole society began to feel that a radical new direction were needed."

The department's projections, published in March last year, are that the number of households in Buckinghamshire and Cambridgeshire will almost double in the next two decades, while the number in Wiltshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire rises by 30 to 40 per cent.

Residents of Hampshire, London, Manchester, and Yorkshire can expect the largest increase in households, with more than 160,000 new homes needed in each area.

Mr Gummer emphasised yesterday that he would protect the green belt "because people need that absolute security. But we have to ask how we are going to work within those limitations." He did not, however, rule out the possibility of more Milton Keynes-style new towns, commenting: "Whatever the solutions, they are going to be tough."

Households have shrunk over recent decades. In 1961 there were an average of four to five people per household, a figure that fell to 2.47 in 1991 and is tipped to decline to 2.17 in 2016.

The make-up of the households has dramatically altered, too. In 1991 England had 19.2 million households, of which 55 per cent were occupied by married couples and 27 per cent by one person. By 2016 there are expected to be 23.6 million households, 42 per cent of them composed of married couples and 36 per cent of singles.

On present trends, less than 20 per cent of all households will be occupied by nuclear families. To discourage this, Mr Gummer said social housing policies should favour married couples.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England hit back at Mr Gummer yesterday, saying that, unless he tackled the central failure of his Government's policy to serve either "those in need (or) the countryside", his "national debate" would rule out key questions before it began.

The conservation body criticised what it called the department's tendency to regard the household projection figures as "targets". It said the Government should concentrate instead on renewing the cities.

Tony Burton, the council's head of planning and natural resources, asked: "Why do the household projections dominate the debate? What about the issues of affordable housing, preserving the countryside and urban regeneration?"

He warned of the consequences of unrestrained development on the nation's landscape: "If we build in the future as we have in the past and we meet the 4.4 million figure, this will involve developing an area of countryside larger than Greater London by 2016." He added that derelict land in London had increased while building continued in the countryside.