Housing at the hustings

So is housing finally cutting through as an issue at this election? Yesterday has convinced me that it is.

The day started with housing featuring as the election issue of the day on Today on Radio 4 – good news in itself but just an indication of the programme’s agenda. The report by John Humphrys was about Shepherd’s Bush and how it’s changed from the setting for Steptoe & Son to a place where a couple on a joint income of over £100,000 cannot afford a deposit, let alone a home, and foreign investors are buying new apartments eight at a time.

An interview with Brandon Lewis and Emma Reynolds followed (listen again here at about 8.30). But it quickly degenerated into bald men squabbling over a comb mode as they traded statistics about who has the worst record in government. Lewis trotted out the usual lines about Help to Buy while Reynolds repeated her better ones about Lyons. Maybe I’ve heard it too many times before, maybe they’ve said the same thing too many times before, but it hardly seemed like housing was at the centre of the election. Depressingly, the focus was entirely on first-time buyers. They do face huge problems but this is an indication I think that the main parties still see home ownership as the issue on which elections are won and lost. It’s a sense of aspiration, rather than housing as such, that is the real issue.

That was enough to lower my expectations for my local hustings. BBC Cornwall is organising them across the county and last night it was the turn of St Ives. The Lib Dems held off the Conservatives by just 1,700 votes in 2010 and it’s one of the 23 seats the Tories need to win to form an overall majority.

I’d submitted a question well in advance (before the manifestos and right to buy) in a bid to see how much of an issue housing will be: ‘What would the candidates do to ensure that homes are genuinely affordable for local people on low and middle incomes?’ But two more advance questions on housing followed: why can’t I vote for a government with a more radical policy on rent caps and social housing; and what are you going to do for young people when rents are too expensive and house prices way out of reach?

What surprised me was not just the level of interest from the audience but also the engagement of the candidates. The big housing issues are the same in Cornwall as elsewhere, though second homes are much higher up the agenda and there are tensions over the need for new homes.

Lib Dem MP Andrew George picked up instantly on my point about ‘genuinely affordable’ homes: ‘It’s ridiculous to define it in relation to the market rate rather than what people can afford.’ The market was ‘skewed to the benefit of second home owners’ and housing was ‘the most serious and desperate issue in this part of Cornwall,’ he said.

Conservative challenger Derek Thomas agreed that housing is ‘a massive issue’ but ran through a list of initiatives on empty homes, brownfield sites and regeneration that I took to be a nod and a wink to nimby voters.

The election is between those two but the other candidates from Labour, the Greens, Mebyon Kernow and even UKIP got the housing message. Tim Andrewes of the Greens gave explicit support to building on green field sites to go alongside the party’s pledge of 500,000 social rented homes by 2020. Cornelius Olivier for Labour was clear that ‘we can’t do it with empty homes, brownfield and existing buildings.’

But the housing debate didn’t finish there. The next question was on the bedroom tax, which was opposed by everyone apart from Derek Thomas. ‘It’s not a tax, it’s a spare room subsidy,’ he declared, before claiming that it was the same as Labour had done in the private sector (wrong) and that the government had spent £465 million on discretionary help (wrong too).

And more questions came from the floor: why not spend the HS2 money on housing? why didn’t Labour build any social housing? Cornelius Olivier admitted: ‘Overwhelmingly we decided to leave housing to the private market. That was a big mistake.’

That rare piece of political honesty brought to an end the housing section of the hustings but it took up more time than the NHS and education combined. I’ve seen elsewhere that several constituencies have held specific housing hustings and housing is obviously a huge issue in London and among Generation Rent. But last night provided evidence that it is a big election issue in a rural area 300 miles from the capital too. People are ready for something that goes well beyond the consensus message of Homes for Britain.

That positive impression was confirmed (negatively) when I got back home and watched Panorama on The Great Housing Benefit Scandal, one of the best TV documentaries on housing in recent years. It told four individual stories of the money that landlords are making on poor quality accommodation:

  • The caravan site on Canvey Island where the owners raked in £1.8 million in housing benefit last year as tenants live year round in damp conditions
  • Ridley Villas in Hackney, where the landlords got £850,000 in housing benefit and opening tenants’ mail is part of the tenancy agreement
  • A large house in Lewisham owned by a former cage fighter that was closed down by the council last year because it was dangerously overcrowded and the electrics were unsafe
  • The ironically named Happyvale Hotel in Camden, where the owner was making £10,000 a month in housing benefit.

The report by Alys Harte was powerful enough to make even the most disinterested viewer sit up and wonder about a housing system that has them paying billions of pounds to landlords while local authorities can only levy ‘pathetically small’ fines against those who abuse the system. If you didn’t see it, do watch on iPlayer.

The national election campaign may still be fought on the familiar political calculation of appealing to existing home owners and sounding aspirational and one local hustings doesn’t change that. It’s still possible that this will go down as ‘the housing election’ only because extending the right to buy will be a vote winner for the Conservatives. To put things in perspective, only 8 per cent of voters told Ipsos MORI that housing will be very important in how they decide what party to vote for.

But that is up from 5 per cent in January and the MORI worm showed that talking about housing was a big winner in the TV debate last week. Yesterday convinced me that housing issues are cutting through at a local level and in the national consciousness.

Originally posted on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

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