Interview with Danny Dorling

Issue section: 

All that is Solid, published by Allen Lane, £20.00

What was your motivation for writing a book about housing?

One reason was to get more people interested in what's going on in society, particularly those who are on average income or those who are doing quite well. In general they are not bothered about many things, but they are bothered about housing.

Unemployment affects only a small proportion of the population, but the difficulty of paying the rent, of paying the mortgage, affects about 90 percent of people - including people who've actually managed to buy a house outright.

You have a set of pretty wealthy young London professionals who are very angry about this issue. So this can be a way of getting them to worry a bit more about life in general.

What are the main drivers of housing inequality?

The main problem is the rise in prices, particularly in the south east of England. Prices have gone up so much in this area that people in the rest of the country think they're really lucky.

The way private landlords are taking over what used to be socially rented housing, and houses for first time buyers, means we are moving back to a kind of Victorian model.

Council housing has gone from being something we are proud of to now being presented as a "safety net".

One of the most surprising things you argue in the book is that you say that we don't need to build more houses.

I'm not against some building, particularly in London and the south east. But my main worry is that building more homes won't make the situation better.

All you'll get is more people owning two homes rather than one, and a rise in private landlords. You will get more empty properties as tenants move between properties.

The problem is that we don't consider the housing stock as a national resource, but as private possessions. So we've ended up with an incredibly inefficient use of what we've already built.

By far the most important reason to build is for migration, and since we are a rapidly ageing population housing these migrants will be important. But the way things are in Britain today, this is a very difficult discussion to get into.

We've had a national count of how many bedrooms there are in the country and discovered that only half the bedrooms are being used at any one time.

The most efficient use of bedrooms is in social housing. The most inefficient is in four, five or six bedroom houses.

A lot of these bedrooms are needed. You have homes where children are away studying, or you need a spare room for guests and so on. I am in favour of people having a spare room.

We have never had more rooms per person than we have now. The number of rooms shot up in the last ten years because people converted the roof and over the garage in the boom of extensions.

And people building extensions when their family's growing, when they actually need the room. That's part of how we've ended up with a lot of spare rooms. People have individually been attempting to solve their own housing problems.

It shows what happens if you don't work collectively. If you work collectively you do a much better job of housing yourselves. The trouble is people are attempting to become their own "mini welfare state".

You end up with more affluent families having quite large properties when they had teenagers, but then carry on living there after the kids have left.

Research by the GMB union revealed that Tory MP Richard Benyon, as well as owning an estate in Berkshire, has hundreds of properties in Hackney.

One in four MPs appear to be private landlords. They have an interest in the housing market, and it goes right across the political spectrum.

Of course, they receive subsidised housing in the capital. If we forced them to pay market prices it would concentrate their minds.

What are the solutions?

We need to redistribute and this would be relatively easy. For example, changing the tax system that gives people the incentive to remain in large houses for as long as possible and creating more bands of council tax at the higher end... In short, anything that could stop the housing prices from rising.

Once we stabilise the prices people can begin to sort themselves out. I make ten recommendations in my book. Implementing just a few of them would make a difference. For instance, giving tenants more rights would put a curb on the number of landlords.

I suspect enough people in the coalition government want prices to rise - they want market shortage to boost prices and so on. They want a private rented sector.

One of the consequences is that you also have a growing number of people who do not have an interest in owning their home because they can't afford it.

This will backlash against the Tories, because the easiest way to get people to move to the right is for them to buy their own home.

Interviewed by Eileen Short