Welcome to Leeds - the city of ‘singletons’

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There are more people in single person households in Leeds than in parts of London and by 2031 more than a third of us will live alone. Neil Hudson asks why and what is means for society.

A quick glance at the skyline of Leeds or even the supermarket fridge shelves will tell you living alone is no longer something for the minority - a fact which hasn’t escaped big business.

According to the Government, the number of people living alone is expected to increase by 163,000 per year and total 10.9m by 2031.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics show a third of all households in Leeds are already single person households and most of those (21.3 per cent) are people under 65. The rate is comparable to parts of inner London - Lewisham has a single occupancy rate of 34.2 per cent, Southwark 33.5 and Lambeth 34.4.

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The shifting social trend has big implications for the way people live but it doesn’t just affect those who are single, it has a wider effect with implications for road networks, public transport, even how big your kettle is.

As if to underline the fact this social trend is already having an impact, in April new welfare reforms will penalise housing benefit claimants who live in a house which has more bedrooms than they need. The latest estimates for the number of council tenants affected in Leeds is 6,700 - 541 of those have already requested a transfer to a one-bed property.

Leeds City Council recently issued guidance on how it intends to build new council houses to cater for the upward trend in one-bed households.

An executive board meeting in January said 87 per cent of the 26,850 applicants on the Leeds Homes Register required either one or two bed homes and 58 per cent required only one bed properties.

Property market expert Ian Summersgill, managing director of chartered building surveyors Linchpin Ltd, said: “This rapid rise is not isolated to the UK but is a worldwide trend, generated by a number of demographic and social changes.

“For example, more people want to focus on their career and start a family later. There are a growing number of older single people living alone following divorce or the loss of their spouse and a rise in people choosing to live near each other rather than cohabiting or marrying.

“If they are cohabiting, a growing number are choosing to retain separate properties as an ongoing source of income and a refuge if the relationship does not progress. Additionally, there is a growing trend among business people to rent Monday-Friday bases close to their office to reduce the weekly commute and allow them to return to their family home at weekends.

“To some degree this significant shift in demographics had already been recognised within the property sector - just look across the skyline of Leeds: recent house building trends show newly built flats constituted nearly half of all new build dwellings in the boom years of 2008/09. By comparison, flats made up less than 20 per cent of all new dwellings a decade earlier.

“In 1998/99, one and two bed properties constituted a third of new houses and flats, whereas during 2008/09 they made up nearly 60 per cent.

“In the most desirable locations such as Leeds, where there is a limited availability of development land, there will always be a need to build upwards or downwards instead of outwards and to build small compact housing such as blocks of single occupancy flats.

“Markets for complexes of flats or houses where the people living there have something in common could emerge. Shared residential blocks could take on some of the values of a commune, in which individuals have rights to privacy and space but only within an agreed common structure, and on the proviso that they contribute to communal life.

“This could mean that extremely small individual dwellings could be tolerated as people have the opportunity to move between them, thereby providing people with the illusion of owning more space.

“The skyline of Leeds provides an early indication of this with the various apartment blocks scattered across the city. However, I believe a more representative model is that currently experienced by first year university students and what constitutes ‘campus accommodation’, i.e.: single en-suite bedrooms with a shared lounge and kitchen, shared gardens and so on.”

He added: “As cities become saturated, with increasing demand for land for housing, recreation and transport then this will start to drive changes in the structure of cities, such as more transport systems moving underground to free up space.

“Examples include places like Japan, Hong Kong or Singapore. High population densities in these countries contributed to the development of a sophisticated transport network that in turn, encouraged more people to use public transport system instead of private cars.

“Singletons are seen as a core target market for companies, for example, the food industry is producing an increased range of ‘meals for one’, electronics companies are building smaller fridges, and kettles and the need for companionship is already being filled with virtual pets and intelligent, interactive entertainment systems.

“Have no doubt, this trend will continue and with all change we will have to bend and flex to accommodate it.”

Janet Smith is manager of the Farsley Living at Home scheme, part of MHA, a charity which was formed 70 years ago by the Methodist Church to look after older people. She said: “We aim to give people information to help them make informed choices, to give them dignity and respect and in general put smiles on faces.

“There are a lot of elderly people living at home through no choice of their own, our work is vital to them. We deal with a lot of people with dementia but one of the biggest things is depression.”

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