London's closing schools: Is the housing crisis creating a lost generation?
Last week, I listened to two separate podcasts* discussing the same phenomenon. Central London's primary schools are closing at an unprecedented rate.
The closures are not because of industrial action, or poor performance, but because there aren't enough children to sustain them.
That is a stark and worrying fact. Children are disappearing from parts of our capital city. The question is why?
The podcasts both draw a direct link between the lack of available, affordable, housing in London (whether to buy or to rent) and the school closures. The argument goes that high rents and house prices are driving lower-middle income families and young people out of central London, or perhaps leading to children not being born at all.
There is research to support this. In January, DLP Consultant's Strategic Policy Research Unit published a briefing note tracking the correlation between house price increases and fertility rates. The note is only four pages long and is worth reading in full.
Its conclusions suggest:
- There is a clear correlation between house prices and fertility rates. Overall, in the UK, a 10% increase in house price equals a 1.3% decrease in births.
- There is also a correlation between where people live and birth rates, with fertility rates being lower in large urban areas, and higher in suburban and rural areas.
To quote the last few paragraphs of the note in full:
"Both UK based and overseas research suggest that rising house prices have an overall negative impact on fertility.
This is because the negative impact for those residing in private rented accommodation is greater and longer lasting than the positive effect for those who reside in owner occupation.
If this is the case then the recent substantial increase in the population who are residing in private rented accommodation will accentuate the impact of any further price rises. This is especially the case where it is the age groups who have yet to reach their completed family size which are continuing to occupy private rented accommodation in greater numbers up to and beyond the age of 45.
In conclusion polices which do not address house price inflation and concentrate new provision in private rented apartment schemes in the larger urban areas and do not provide family sized accommodation for owner occupation will continue to be contributory factor in the country’s falling fertility."
In short, the lack of acessible, affordable, secure housing is a direct contributing factor to school closures. Younger people, who are looking to start families, appear to be responding to cost of living and housing pressures by doing one or all of the following:
- moving out of cities to more affordable areas (which anecdotally appears to have a knock on affect on house prices/ rent levels in those areas as well);
- Delaying when they have children;
- Reducing their overall family size; or
- Deciding not to have children at all.
This results in a falling number of children in a particular area, which in turn leads to school closures.
To call this concerning, would be an understatement. The UK is a rapidly ageing society. Around one-fifth of the UK population (19%) was aged 65 or over in 2019. By 2043 this is projected to increase to 24% of the population. If housing policies are playing a part in inadvertently surpressing birth rates, then this demographic shift is only going to become more pronounced - particularly in urban areas.
Against that background, the government's proposed changes to the NPPF are deeply worrying.
The changes include moving away from 'mandatory' housing targets in much of the country, whilst simultaneously doubling down on the 35% uplift in major urban centres.
The very types of policy that the SPRU at DLP Planning are referring to when they state that: "polices which do not address house price inflation and concentrate new provision in private rented apartment schemes in the larger urban areas and do not provide family sized accommodation for owner occupation will continue to be contributory factor in the country’s falling fertility."
It looks as if the cumulative effect of government policies in recent years, has not just been to make it harder for young people to get onto the housing ladder. Increasingly, it looks as if they may be contributing to children not being born at all.
If Enrique Peñalosa is right and "Children are a kind of indicator species" for cities, then their disappearance from central London should be ringing major alarm bells.
They are worth listening to. I recommend them.
Schools across inner South London are suffering from falling numbers of pupils, which has been blamed on reasons as varied as Brexit, the pandemic, falling birthrates and a lack of affordable housing for families.
Last October, David Qurike-Thornton, director of children’s services at Southwark Council, warned that schools in the borough would have to close in the face of falling pupil numbers. Two months later, Townsend Primary School in Walworth was revealed to be under threat of closure after a lack of applications to attend left it with 79 places to fill and a £599,000 deficit.”