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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

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