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The Anglosphere needs to learn to love apartment living

Housing shortages, affordability crises and Nimbyism are growing problems in many countries, but it’s remarkable how much worse things have become in the English-speaking world.

Forty years ago, the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland had roughly 400 homes per 1,000 residents, level with developed continental European countries. Since then the two groups have diverged, the Anglosphere standing still while western Europe has pulled clear to 560 per 1,000.

Unsurprisingly, the same pattern is reflected in house prices, which have risen further and faster in most anglophone countries since the global financial crisis than elsewhere.

There appears to be a deep-seated aversion to urban density in anglophone culture that sets these countries apart from the rest. Three distinct factors are at work here.

The first is a shared culture that values the privacy of one’s own home — most easily achieved in low-rise, single-family housing. The phrase “an Englishman’s home is his castle” dates back several centuries. From this came the American dream of a detached property surrounded by a white picket fence, while Australians and New Zealanders aspired to a “quarter acre”.

A new YouGov survey bears this out: when asked if they would like to live in an apartment in a 3-4-floor block — picture the elegant streets of Paris, Barcelona or Rome — Britons and Americans say “no” by roughly 40 per cent and 30 per cent respectively, whereas continental Europeans are strongly in favour.

The cumulative impact of centuries of such preferences is huge. Across the OECD as a whole, 40 per cent of people live in apartments, and the EU average is 42. But that plummets to 9 per cent in Ireland, 14 per cent in Australia, 15 per cent in New Zealand and 20 per cent in the UK.

And it’s not just living in these apartments that Britons don’t like. Almost half say they would oppose new 3-4-storey blocks in their local area, whereas in every European country surveyed a plurality would be in favour.

This brings us to the second shared problem: planning systems. No matter that the UK has a discretionary approach while the others use zoning — the planning regimes in all six anglophone countries are united in facilitating objections to individual applications, rather than proactive public engagement at the policy-setting stage. This preserves the low-density status quo.

Finally, we have what I call the nature paradox: Anglophone planning frameworks give huge weight to environmental conservation, yet the preference for low-density developments fuels car-dependent sprawl and eats up more of that cherished green and pleasant land.

Ultimately, whether the goal is tackling the housing crisis, protecting the environment or boosting productivity, the answer to so many woes in the English-speaking world is to unburden ourselves of our anti-apartment exceptionalism.

john.burn-murdoch@ft.com, @jburnmurdoch

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