The Politics of Housing

The Housing White Paper is expected this week and although it has been delayed, the leaks and briefings give me some hope that it may have been worth the wait. Perhaps most importantly there are clear signs that the government will look beyond home-ownership. This would mark a significant change from Cameron/Osborne housing policy where increasing home-ownership was the priority. This blog is a quick look back at what was driving the Cameron/Osborne focus on home-ownership.

Many were surprised by the government’s focus on housing immediately following the 2015 general election. However, polling by Ipsos MORI shows that housing had risen up the rankings of ‘Most Important Issues Facing Britain’ in the run up to the general election* and it became a ‘Top 5’ issue in the months following the election. Housing was now a political priority but also a political opportunity.

A Crisis of Home-Ownership

As I wrote in July 2015 (Savills Housing Note PDF), the government’s approach to housing was best viewed as trying to solve a crisis in home-ownership. Social housing and private renting took a back seat as the government prioritised home-ownership. This would appear to be exactly what the public want. Surveys continue to show a majority preference for home-ownership in the UK.Tackling housing with a focus on home-ownership was also a political opportunity. Home-owners are more likely to vote Conservative. Helping younger households access home-ownership could create a substantial political dividend in future general elections.

However, it would appear that the Cameron/Osborne government took that logic a step further. Nick Clegg is reported as saying that they treated housing as a ‘petri dish’ for growing voters while social renting was disliked as ‘it just creates Labour voters’. Pay-to-stay, high value council house sales, and expanded right-to-buy looked set to reduce the size of the social housing sector. Affordable housing delivery fell to ’embarrassing’ levels. Home-owner policies like Starter Homes were expanded and looked set to replace the majority of remaining affordable housing delivery.

A More Balanced Approach

That all changed with the vote to leave the EU. The government’s new approach to housing appears to be more balanced and considered. I’m tentatively hopeful that the White Paper will continue in this direction.

It is inevitable that home-ownership will remain the priority given the current demographic, economic, and housing market profile. Although an over-simplification given the electoral system, an approximate breakdown of voters and non voters by housing tenure shows that winning over home-owners is essential for any political party looking to govern.Although home-ownership will be the priority, the current government appears more focused on increasing overall housing delivery rather than any individual tenure. Polling in 2010 on what tenure of new housing people thought was needed in their local area (rather than what tenure they want) suggested that many are open to range of tenures. The one exception is new private rented homes. This could be a challenge for the build-to-rent sector but may reflect the reputation of buy-to-let landlords rather than the tenure itself. 

More recent polling suggests that people are more supportive of new housing development than in the above 2010 based analysis. Even so, local opposition to new housing where it is needed most will still be a challenge. Hopefully the White Paper will offer some solutions to this challenge and others. If not, it will at least provide something for local politicians to blame when planning permission is granted at appeal. *it’s interesting to note the temporary decline in housing’s importance in the months following the launch of Labour’s Lyons Housing Review (which I worked on while on secondment to L&G).

Update 7:11am 6/2: here’s a version of the earlier chart that looks at all potential voters rather than just registered voters.