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Why the UK doesn't need a property owning democracy

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The political parties are pressing the panic button in an increasingly desperate attempt to come up with solutions to the UK’s housing needs.

The debate is marked by a paucity of new ideas and empty rhetoric, exemplified by today’s announcement about extending the ‘right to buy’ legislation to housing association tenants – the eighth election in a row where the Conservatives have proposed this.

Along with George Osborne’s recent ‘Help to Buy ISA’, this is a result of politicians fixated on the notion of a property owning democracy. David Cameron’s pledge to create ‘a Britain where everyone who works hard can own a home of their own’ merely recycles rhetoric that has been around since the 1930s.

Other parties all see votes in prioritising first-time buyers, albeit with more emphasis in their proposals on the need for boosting the social rental sector and reforms for private tenants.

But all this electoral heat sheds very little light on the really big questions for UK housing policy.

First, politicians are noticeably silent about the limits to owner-occupation in an economy like that of the UK.  The proportion of home-owning households has been falling since the early 2000s in the face of declining affordability and tighter lending requirements.

In the longer term, Britain’s low wage, low-skilled, labour intensive economy doesn’t bode well for widespread improvement in real living standards. It is hard to see how this economic model will translate into a resurgent owner-occupier sector.

Second, all parties accept that we don’t build enough new housing, yet none has put forward credible policies for addressing this challenge.

In 2002 I was a member of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation inquiry into land for housing. This estimated that housing completions in England should be raised by 61% to 225,000 a year to meet demographic needs. Two years later the Barker review of housing supply put the figure at about 250,000 homes a year.

These targets have been consistently missed – the closest we got was eight years ago when 219,000 homes were built. Completions today are barely half the JRF or Barker estimates, which we should remember were prepared at a time of lower population growth than today.

Nor do the figures address the problem of increasingly obsolescent housing. At current rates of construction, modernization of the housing stock – much of which is old and of poor quality compared to other countries – will take place over a geological time span.

Labour has said it wants to ‘capture the post-war spirit for building new homes’, but their target is only 200,000 homes a year. The Liberal Democrats plan to build 300,000 a year and the Greens plan 500,000. The Conservatives don’t have an overall housebuilding target.

Boosting the rate of new housebuilding has long been a poisoned chalice for politicians. Delivering even the modest target to build 200,000 new homes a year may well prove unachievable due to strength of local opposition. For MPs the easiest option is often to argue to their local electorate that they are the ones who will stop new housebuilding taking place in their constituency –  sometimes at the same time as making speeches in Westminster about why more housebuilding is needed.

So what’s needed? Future governments should focus more on bricks and mortar than on tenure. We should accept that the ‘property owning democracy’ is at its limit and begin to construct a housing system where there are no inherent financial advantages in being a homeowner or stigma attached to other tenures.

This means we have to move from a focus on policy instruments in isolation and largely targeting specific tenures, to policy which addresses housing as a wider system, with its own dynamics and inter-relationships. Concentrating on particular targets or tenures alone merely distorts the debate about the more fundamental issues.

And we need to embrace far more plurality in tenures, with different forms of ownership and renting – a genuinely tenure neutral housing policy.

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