NPI took a very angry phone call this week, from a lady in Wales taking great exception to a report we'd recently published with JRF and Shelter. The report, Choice, Quality of Life and Under Occupation
, was, in the opinion of this caller, "rubbish".
If you are thinking of ringing us up to have a go, we'd far rather you didn't start by calling our work rubbish. It's rude and it's not true. NPI’s work always has such a vast numerical ‘bottom’ to it that it can never be dismissed like that. And precisely because it is so drenched with data, we actually devote a huge amount of time to agonising over which conceptual boxes to pack that data into in order to come up with a coherent story.
Yet once we had got this out the way, this lady’s anger was easy to appreciate. Over the past few weeks, the press have carried several stories about how older people are ‘under-occupying’ homes. Over more like the past few days, there has been more general stuff about how a conflict between the generations is denying the young chances that the old have taken for granted.
The only thing I’ll say about ‘generation’ here is that it is a very good example of a very bad conceptual box. But when the media discussion is flowing in a particular direction, our housing options report about under-occupation by older people can easily seem to be part of it.
As it happens, nothing could be further from the truth – and perhaps the real fault of our report is that it did not make that clear enough. So let’s have another go now.
Boiled down, our report said three things. The first was that ‘under-occupation’ rests on something called the ‘bedroom standard’ – and the bedroom standard was originally introduced to help gauge the extent not of under-occupation but of its direct opposite, over-crowding. So what we have got here is a concept introduced for one purpose blithely transferred over for something quite different
According to this standard, a single adult or a couple need one bedroom. Any home with two or more spare bedrooms is defined as ‘under-occupied’. Any couple without children that occupies a three bedroom home is therefore ‘under-occupying’.
In response to this, our report rehearsed the reasons why couples may require more than one bedroom. Besides medical reasons and a need for more space at home when (as older people can) one spends more time there, there is also the prospect of younger members of the extended family either coming to visit or even (in these straightened times) once more to live. All this is known to most of us. Our irate caller echoed all of it in her own situation.
Then in the way we do, the report also burrowed deep into the data to look at what actually happens. One thing this showed was almost half of the ‘under-occupying households’ do not just contain people over 55 – so it is not just about old people.
But the really key finding is – our second point – is that comfortably more than half of all older households in the private sector – assumed to be those who have a sufficient degree of choice over the matter – ‘under-occupy’. In short, ‘under-occupation’ among older households is the norm.
We tend to attach rather a lot of significance to norms (the whole poverty definition hanging on it for example). That does not mean they cannot be challenged, or held to be wrong. But if they are to be criticised, those who would do so should not be relying on such a flimsy concept borrowed from a different set of problems and flying in the face of people’s revealed preferences.
The third thing our report then said is this: if ‘under-occupation’ is a problem, then the watchword for dealing with it should be ‘choice’. Our reading of the qualitative research is that in the right circumstances, many older people would be happy with somewhere smaller. ‘Smaller’ however almost invariably means two bedrooms rather than one (so still in excess of the wretched ‘bedroom standard’).
And ‘in the right circumstances’ encompasses all sorts of things including price, proximity, security, control and certainty. Is there a surfeit of good quality two-bedroom homes available in the places older people want? If so, that is news to us.
In the end, our lady caller teaches a valuable lesson: unless it screams its opposition from the very top of the first page, even a good report about a rubbish concept still ends up looking like rubbish.