20 May 2021

The real meaning of need

I am sure at one time or another, we have all found ourselves declaring our ‘need’ for something. From an exciting indulgence to a new item of clothing or gadget we want to get our hands on, the words ‘I need this’ will often slip out. But is ‘need’ really the right word for us to be using? 

It’s important at times for us to recognise the difference between a need and a desire. Needs relate to the things we cannot do without, such as food, drink, or shelter. Our desires or the things we want however, are things that we don’t necessarily need to survive.

Our desires are conscious– we actively want them – whereas our needs will always exist regardless of whether we’re aware of them or not. For example, a person living with dementia may not be aware of their need to eat and drink, but they still need to do this. In fact, people living in supported housing or care homes are required to have a ‘needs assessment’ for just that reason.

However, there is a broader concept of need that we should be aware of. While most people can meet their own or their family's needs, there is an element of social planning required that individuals cannot assess or take any action on, and that is housing need.

The need for housing

Robinson (1979) suggested that housing need requires:

  • The establishment of a particular standard of provision which we should not dip below; and
  • The ability to pay to be discounted as a factor.

This means all households should be able to access housing of a given standard, regardless of their ability to pay. However, this cuts against the definition of need given at the opening of the blog, that ‘needs’ are those things we are unable to live without.

The type and amount of housing specified by planners, in developed countries at least, goes some way beyond this. A supply of clean, running water, gas and electricity are now seen to be essential, and rightly so.

In housing legislation, policy, and guidance, it is not unusual to find statements about what people need. For example, the Shared Accommodation Rate suggests that single adults under the age of 34 years only ‘need’ shared accommodation. Homelessness legislation states that adults ‘need’ their own bedroom, whether single or in a couple. Policies like the ‘bedroom tax’ also assume that a household of a given size only ‘need’ a certain number of bedrooms, and local housing allowance rates highlight that claimants only ‘need’ to be able to access the bottom third (or less) of the local rental market. The government has recently introduced legislation that recognises that homes created under permitted development rights were not delivering what people ‘need’ in terms of natural light and space.

So, it’s clear from this that ‘needs’ are to some degree determined by other people, or socially.

No one wants to return to living a subsistence existence, so the question becomes: how do we decide what people actually ‘need’ to live an acceptable standard of life?



  • Robinson, R (1979) Housing Economics and Public Policy, MacMillan, Basingstoke.
  • Doyal, L & Gough, I (1991) A Theory of Human Need, MacMillan, Basingstoke.
Written by Yoric Irving-Clarke

Yoric Irving-Clarke a policy and practice officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing. He leads on homelessness and domestic abuse in the CIH policy team. Yoric is a chartered CIH member.