Rich homeowners, poor renters, and so they shall stay

Government policy is on a collision course with itself.

The reason for Britain's chronic housing problem is that the rent is too damn high.

Not just the rent, of course. House prices are too damn high as well, and that leads to the housing benefit bill being too damn high and even the cost of commuting being too damn high.

We know how to reduce rent and house prices, as well. It doesn't take instituting rent controls (a very dangerous proposal, which has the potential to do more damage to the nation's housing stock than the sell-off of council houses ever did), nor does it take changing the legal background to renting to allow tenants to "lock in" to lower rates with long-term contracts. It's a very simple case of supply and demand. The rent is too damn high because supply is too damn low. The solution to our housing problem is as simple as sprinkling abodes liberally across the nation.

The problem is that no one with the power to do so actually wants to reduce the cost of housing. For the 66 per cent of the country who own their own homes, such a policy would be disastrous. The expectation, barely dampened by the recession, that house prices will rise forever, has led to too many gambling their financial survival that there will never be a slump. As long as houses are seen as a safe asset, rather than a potentially-risky investment, then government policy will always have to be to support that view.

Consider what happened when three 100m-high towers, which included 4,500 homes, were considered for White City in West London:

Nicki Grinling, 43, who lives in the St Quintin Estate in North Kensington, said locals were furious at the "underhand way" the plans had been handled: "We've always had fantastic vistas to the west, we see the beautiful sunsets and get lots of light. None of the buildings are higher than two storeys. It has always been the charm of this area, you don't feel like you're in central London."

It may well be the case that building those – comparatively small – towers would have "spoilt the character of the area" (and cast shadows over the Camerons' West Kensington house, to boot). And although Grinling doesn't say so explicitly, the character of complaints like this always carries a financial subtext – house prices will be depressed if the building goes ahead.

This is obviously an issue of intergenerational fairness. 49.5 per cent of owner-occupiers are aged 55 and up, while 56 per cent of renters – in the social and private sector – are below 35. When action is made to protect house prices, the former benefit at the expense of the latter.

But it's also one of equality more generally. The regions where planning permission is easiest to get are the North East and North West, where planning permission is granted in 94 and 90 per cent of cases; in London and the South East, it is granted in just 80 and 84 per cent of cases, respectively. The richer an area is, the harder it is to build something new and affordable in it, and so the more wealth is entrenched in those areas. The planning reforms introduced by the coalition, in the form of the National Planning Policy Framework, includes a presumption in favour of development - this is a good idea, but doesn't come anywhere near resolving these fundamental contradictions.

It's not just that wealth becomes concentrated because younger, poorer people can't move in to the area. The raft of permissions required to build new houses serve many aims, from environmental to community cohesion, but the interests of the propertied are always addressed above those of the dispossessed:

You can object if a change of use or new development will overlook your property, overshadow your property or cause additional noise.

"I was here first" is a fundamental tenet of how we deal with development in this country. So public policy becomes a case of trying to help those who can't buy into the system do so, without harming those already in it.

These two aims are irreconcilable. It is hard to buy a house because supply is constrained, but increasing supply will drop prices. Old housing policy laid the contradiction clear. Building council houses can not be seen as anything but increasing supply, and consequently depressing prices.

But current policy hides the conflict. By shifting housing expenditure from house building to paying the rents of social tenants, the government is able to pretend it will all come out in the wash. And when the constant drive to increase the value of property pays off – as it always would – in soaring housing benefit, the government can cap that, too. And then lower the cap. And scrap housing benefit entirely for under-25s.

Something's got to give. Two government policies are aimed head-on. Their collision may be happening in slow motion, but that's no mercy to those caught in the middle.


Sold! And probably entrenching generational divides. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.