A look ahead to the manifestos

Originally posted on May 11 on my blog for Inside Housing.

As we await the manifestos, what are the chances of real change in housing over the next five years?

Give or take the odd leak, there are some positive signs. First, this election has one of the two major parties pinning its election hopes on housing reform and members of the other saying that ‘building more homes‘ is a bigger priority than it has been for years.

Second, a clutch of select committee reports, which were published just before parliament shut down for the election, set down some useful all-party markers for future policy.

Third, in Gavin Barwell and John Healey the two main parties have their best housing spokespeople in years. That may be damning them with faint praise but both seem to be politicians who get the case for housing.

For all the enthusiasm about Labour’s new deal for private renters and pledge of 100,000 social rented homes a year, the chances of it being able to put them into practice seem somewhere between slim and zero.

So the real questions are whether the Conservatives will go any further than February’s underwhelming Housing White Paper and if so in which direction they will head.

The Conservative Home survey I linked to above found party members agreeing on the need for more homes but favouring two very different ways of building them. One strand of opinion argues for the liberalisation of planning, while another wants Macmillan-style state intervention in housebuilding.

You could almost call them Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite. Presumably, the first would also want a reiteration of the 2015 manifesto pledge to extend the Right to Buy to housing association tenants and would see funding it via forced sales of council houses as a good thing. The second might see sense on forced sales and accept that the market alone cannot fix things.

Where Theresa May stands in all this is far from clear. During her campaign to become Conservative leader she pledged to fight ‘injustices’ and help ‘ordinary working-class families’ but seemed to assume that all of them already own their own home.

Similarly, when Andrew Marr asked her on TV at the start of the campaign about benefit cuts for the working poor, she defended them on the grounds that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’.

But as her staff work on a manifesto apparently designed to steal some of Labour’s clothes, what more eye-catching way to do it could there be than promising a revival of council housing?

That choice aside, how much of a priority will housing really be for her? One reason the White Paper was a damp squib is that housing outcomes depend on so much more than housing policy.

They are determined by choices on social security and tax in particular, and economic policy in general – and most of them are about politics rather than policy.

At all elections the parties promise something like ‘affordable housing for you and your family’ but it’s hard to think of the last time any government achieved this.

Part of the reason is timing: making housing affordable will take longer than the five years (let alone two) that we have between elections.

That leaves parties facing potentially unpopular choices now that may only pay political dividends when they have already left power.

It’s also about the politics of housing and insiders and outsiders. The insiders are the housing haves, people who already own one home or more and who want policies that protect and inflate the value of their assets. The outsiders are the have-nots, those who don’t already own a house and want policies to make it easier to buy and better to rent.

The conventional wisdom that elections can only be won by appealing to insiders has broken down to some extent – the proportion of us who own our homes is 63% and falling and we have children who need homes too – but it’s been replaced a harsher arithmetic.

The parties know that homeowners are not just much more likely to vote than renters, they are also far more likely to be registered to vote in the first place. Thanks to their more frequent moves, private renters are effectively disenfranchised by the housing system.

Jeremy Corbyn’s new package of rights may well boost Labour support among private renters but owners still punch above their weight when it comes to elections.

That is exactly the calculation that Gavin Barwell seems to have made in defending his wafer-thin majority of 165 in Croydon Central.

Housing tenure in his constituency reflects the big changes seen in the past few years. Around 60% of households own their home, compared with 18% in social housing and 21% in private renting, but between 2001 and 2011 private renting rose by 61% while mortgaged ownership fell 18%.

Barwell has shifted policy away from the obsession with ownership seen under David Cameron and George Osborne and he does make a virtue of that in his local campaign.

One of his five priorities is more affordable housing and he also mentions banning letting agent fees and supporting a community land trust.

Good stuff, but if you look at the Twitter account that has now morphed into @BackBarwell, he has come back repeatedly to one housing issue since the election was called: Labour’s inheritance tax bombshell and whether his opponent supports it or not.

This is a reference to Labour’s line on one of Mr Osborne’s most controversial policies: an increase in the inheritance tax threshold for main homes to allow a couple to pass on up to £1m tax-free to their children or grandchildren from 2020/21.

As a housing policy it’s hard to think of anything more regressive or more symptomatic of the ‘broken’ housing market.

That market is already dominated by cash, locking out people with no access to the bank of mum and dad, inheritances and profits from the sales of other property.

The ex-minister is defending a tax cut worth almost £1bn a year that will go not to ‘ordinary working families’ but to people lucky enough to have bought a house at the right time and their descendants. (Needless to say, the tax planners are already coming up with ways to make it go further.)

But in terms of housing politics, he knows it’s a vote winner and one that will appeal directly to the people in his constituency who are most likely to vote.

His party is odds-on to win on 8 June with an increased majority. If he retains his seat, an early test of how serious the party is about housing will be whether he stays on as minister to complete the job set out in the White Paper.

But after that, what exactly? The White Paper is a good start but it does not come close to setting out a vision for the next five years, let alone fixing a broken housing system.

For years our politics has relied on keeping housing insiders happy while policy mitigates the worst impacts on outsiders. At best this has succeeded in slowing down the rate at which the housing crisis gets worse.

At worst it just hands the costs of that crisis to future generations.

The next five years will mainly be about Brexit but sooner or later we will need more than housing politics and policy as usual.

Housing has to work for the many as well as the few for Britain to be a country that works for everyone.rigfi

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