Paul Schnabel: The Netherlands is turning red

Paul Schnabel thinks the new cabinet had better pay attention to the issue of public housing.

When you look at one of the last maps of the wonderful Bosatlas of the history of the Netherlands it becomes clear how quickly urbanisation has developed since 1900.
For hundreds of years the Netherlands has been one of the most urbanised countries in the world. In the 17th century Amsterdam even became one of the biggest cities in the world, but on the whole the look of the country was determined by its many small towns and villages.
This is how it still was in 1900 although even then the country’s population had doubled compared to the preceding century. The Bosatlas map shows comparatively little red, the colour denoting built-up areas.
All that was to change after the Second World War. The population grew but towns and villages grew even faster. In 1945 the Netherlands had two million homes for ten million people. Now it’s 7.3 million houses for almost 17 million inhabitants. Half of these were built after 1970.
Bigger homes
The trend is towards bigger houses for increasingly smaller households. It is often thought that houses used to be bigger in the past but that is a mistake. We have been left with mainly big houses from the 1900’s but these would have been home to far larger households.
Single person households have more than tripled in the last forty years. Gone are the days of the landlady or the live-in uncle or grandmother. For people who want to strike out on their own three rooms and a private kitchen and bathroom is the minimum requirement.
In the big cities more than 50% of households now consist of no more than one person. Fifty years ago Amsterdam had more inhabitants than it has now but the built-up area was much smaller. Smaller households caused cities to spread.
The sheer volume of building that the Netherlands had to cope with after the war was enormous. It was much bigger than the neighbouring countries, whose population growth had been not been as rapid, were facing.
Now, population growth has slowed down but the number of households is still on the increase. And that is how it will remain unless the financial crisis becomes so severe that people won’t be able to afford the luxury of a house all to themselves. Southern Europe has always had that problem and now Spain and Greece in particular are feeling the brunt of it.
In the Netherlands the demand for independent living space will only increase. The pressure is rising, especially in the urban Randstad area, and there are not enough houses to go round. People who want to rent are confronted with long waiting lists and would-be first time buyers are hard put to find something within their financial reach.
At the start of 2011 I totted up the number of houses for sale in Utrecht. It came to 3000 of which very few had an asking price of under €150,000 while almost half were on offer for well over €250,000.
In Heerlen, in the far south of the Netherlands all of three homes were on sale for less than €150,000. There is no difference in wages or income, but then again Heerlen’s population is decreasing. The number of new building permits has nose-dived dramatically to 50,000 and building costs have doubled to €140,000 in a very short period of time.
That means the problem is only getting bigger. There is less building and homes are getting more expensive as a result. No one has a solution and in all likelihood there is no single solution. Public housing should probably make a comeback at the top the political agenda of the new cabinet.
Paul Schnabel is head of the government social policy unit SCP

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