Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion's Director Tom Smith says that the Census reveals that up to half a million people in social housing do not know their landlord is a housing association.
The December publication of the latest data from the 2011 census kicked off a veritable feeding frenzy of analysis from media pundits, thinktanks, researchers, public service providers and even local pub drinkers. Headlines focused on the impact of migration over the last decade, with Oxford University's migration observatory, the IPPR and Manchester University leading from the front.
However, there are also some big social issues hidden in the housing data. The census confirms the impact of two of the biggest housing stories over the past decade: the rise of private renting and the fall in owner occupation, and the scale of the transfer from council-owned social housing to housing associations. There is also a lesson in relying on census data, where other administrative data sources can be used for cross-referencing.
• Growth of the private rented sector and fall in owner-occupation, driven by population increases
Results from the census show the dramatic increase in the scale of private renting, by almost 50% over a decade. Between 2001 to 2011, the number of private-rented households increased by 1.63 million in England and Wales, from 12% of all housing in 2001 to 18% in 2011 (if you include in this sector those living rent free). Unsurprisingly, given difficulties of accessing mortgage finance, the proportion of people owning their own homes has fallen significantly. Although still the biggest component of all housing, accounting for 64% of all housing in 2011, owner occupation has fallen from 69% of all housing in 2001.
This is further evidence of the scale of what has been described as Generation Rent. Although the total number of households in England and Wales increased by 1.7 million over the decade, 95% of this increase was in the private renting sector.
Local variations are associated with rapid population growth. The national figure hides some big local variations. Across London, less than half of households are now owner-occupied (49.5%); the capital also saw the largest regional fall in owner-occupation levels over the decade; from 56.5% to 49.5%. In Hackney, only one in four (26%) of households were owner-occupied.
The biggest changes are seen in those local authority (LA) areas with the biggest population growth. The local authorities with the largest population increases are also those authorities with the biggest shift towards private renting, and away from owner-occupation. In the 10 authorities with the largest population increases over the decade, the number of private renting households increased by 139,000 over the decade, but owner-occupied households only by 5,600.
The data from the census underscores the challenges facing central and local government and the housing sector. The increased pressure on housing through population growth, low levels of house building, and difficulty in accessing mortgages, is leading to big shifts in how we live. Generation Rent is here to stay.
• Census data shows – but undercounts – the shift in social housing
The second significant story seen in the census housing data is the scale of the shift from council to registered social landlord housing. In total, 18% of all households were self-reported as renting social housing in 2011, similar to the 19% in 2001. But within these figures, the impact of stock transfers from councils to housing providers is clear. The proportion of social housing now managed by registered social landlords is significantly up, with that owned by local authorities correspondingly down.
However, the census undercounts the true scale of the shift. In 2011, census data identified 1.8m properties run by registered social landlords in England, well below the 2.3m identified in housing provider returns to the Tenant Services Authority. Similarly, the 2.1m council owned properties from 2011 data is well above the 1.7m identified in Department of Communities and Local Government data.
In other words, up to half a million people in the census appear to have misreported their housing as council owned rather than registered social landlord. This is understandable: many tenants may well continue to see their house as "council housing" even after stock transfers – and it is unlikely that the data on ownership and private-renting is similarly skewed. But it highlights the importance of cross-referencing, or "triangulating" in the research jargon, census data against other sources where available. Although the census is the most detailed information source we have on the state of the UK, we can't simply take the data as gospel.