I have a lot of time for Shelter’s policy team, because apart from basically being in agreement with them about the evils of strict planning policies I think of them as being smart, open-minded people who are happy to debate with their opponents in good faith.
I’m not sure about their most recent report, though, which purports to show that four in ten homes in Britain don’t meet ‘acceptable’ standards. It’s not to suggest that the housing situation in Britain is all roses to question a few of the things they think are essential to living well.
Most of the 'essential attributes' are indeed pretty bog-standard – a house should have a toilet and a shower or a bath, should have plug sockets and not be easy to break into, etc. But some are dubious.
"There is enough space for all members of the household to comfortably spend time together in the same room" is important for families but not for co-habiting young people. I know lots of people who’ve had the option of a flat with a sitting room but have chosen one without, because the rent is cheaper and/or the bedrooms are bigger for the same price.
"The household has enough control over how long they can live in the home" – does this preclude assured shorthold tenancies of 12 months? I don’t know – the data is not available without emailing Shelter to ask (more on that below) – but if so pretty much every flat I’ve lived in since leaving university, even the decent ones, fails the test.
"There is enough space to allow all members of the household to have privacy, for example when they wish to be alone" – I shared a bedroom with my brother growing up, so I guess none of my childhood homes meet this standard. Well, OK, I thought they were fine. (These criteria are sometimes contradictory, because another point suggests that it’s OK for kids to share rooms.)
In many respects rental properties used by young professionals cannot hope to win. For example, to qualify as ‘acceptable’ one of these three must be satisfied: being allowed to redecorate the home (repainting the walls, etc), being allowed to have a pet, or being assured of being there for long enough to 'participate in the local community'. None of those three apply to my current flat, which I quite like and certainly do not think is an unacceptable place to live.
Remember: failing any one of these criteria would make a home fail the 'Living Home Standard'. And there are places that could fail or pass on the sole question of whether you're allowed to keep a pet hamster in your bedroom.
If I was raising a family then I would feel differently about many of these, but the point is that lots of people are not raising families. If four out of ten flats are ‘unacceptable’ by these criteria but most of those are inhabited by people who have no need for pets or redecoration, or even long-term security in that flat, then the problem is less than is suggested.
I don't need space for a dog, I don't want to redecorate, I don't care about making friends with my community. But because my flat doesn't allow me to do these things, it fails the Shelter test. How many other people are living in flats that have failed and don't care either?
I’m also a little bit annoyed because the actual data, the polling evidence that tells us how many homes are ‘unacceptable’ by Shelter’s standards, isn’t available except if you email Shelter’s public affairs team to ask.
That’s not how it should work: as I’ve written before, we cannot trust journalists to scrutinise academic or think tank research properly, and if we can’t do that ourselves conveniently we shouldn’t trust the work at all. It’s extremely bad form of the BBC to report on unpublished data like this, and bad form of Shelter and Ipsos MORI not to publish it so that ordinary Joes like me can read it without asking for permission.
I could of course make the argument that the real problem is people being on low incomes, and the solution is not to pass regulations that, in effect, force them to spend more money on housing that Shelter approves of, but to make them richer by cutting their taxes, by growing the economy, by giving them cash transfers, by cutting the costs of other expenditures like energy and childcare, or by relaxing planning laws so that land is cheaper. All of this is true but almost beside the point if Shelter's unacceptable homes include places that people are perfectly happy with regardless of their income.
To which you might say, why question this? We know the planning system makes things worse. But we don’t need to make flimsy arguments based on secret data to make this case, and doing so makes us all look bad.