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Why the left should aspire to a "property owning democracy"

There is a social argument for ownership as well as a conservative one.

"Ownership enables people to feel a commitment to the place where they live." Photograph: Getty Images.

The aspiration to home ownership, once seen as part of British national identity itself, is in trouble.  Recent research by Cambridge University suggests that a marked drop in mortgaged home ownership both pre-dates the financial crash and is likely to continue long into the future. That won’t come as news to those trying to become first-time buyers, struggling in a mortgage market where the size of required deposits rises sharply, even as house prices themselves stay largely the same. It also won’t come as news to those families who have contributed to the rapid growth in the private rented sector, often struggling in a market which has seen neither consistent improvements in protections for tenants or in the quality of available homes. 

Some on the left of British politics probably welcome this potential long-term shift in Britain’s housing market. Many left-leaning commentators have long argued that the British have been overly committed to ownership, neglecting the possibilities of long-term renting associated with many European city environments. They also remember the battles against Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to create a “property-owning democracy” in the 1980s, where the belief that home ownership helped to shape a more conservative political orientation was shared by both critics and admirers alike

This would be a mistake, however. As an IPPR report that will be published later this week argues, home ownership should remain a primary commitment for British housing policy. We should dedicate ourselves to identifying new policy solutions to make it easier, not harder, for the people of this country to own a home.

There are two primary reasons why it is important to restore the possibilities of home ownership to as broad a section of the population as is compatible with economic stability.

 First, home ownership has always been the way in which most British families put down roots in their communities. Ownership enables people to feel a commitment to the place where they live. It provides a sense of belonging that is not generative only of a conservative political mentality but one which allows the development of a palpable sense of agency, with individuals and their families becoming able to commit to the good of their neighbours as well as to improve the quality of their own lives. The stable patterns of social interaction that are associated with communities of ownership are preconditions for the kind of social reciprocity that the left champions, as well as the more conservative disposition that is more usually commented upon. There is, in other words, a social argument for ownership as well as a conservative one and we would be foolish to overlook it.

Second, home ownership remains a widely shared aspiration of the people of Britain. Despite all of the difficulties with mortgages and affordability, most people in Britain long to be able to shape their own domestic environments, to choose their own wallpaper, to paint their own front doors. Narrowing the availability of this option only to the well-off - essentially to those with large enough deposits or with parents willing to pay the costs themselves -   would be to further segregate an already excessively segregated society. If home ownership was to become the housing equivalent of those “Olympic car lanes” that now blight London - available only to a very select few - then we would live in a less, not more, desirable society. The left should never welcome a development that enables the rich to continue to access a good to which most people aspire and to deny that right to others.

The decline in home ownership might not be easily reversible in the short-term. It would need significant reform of our mortgage market and, even more importantly, a substantial increase in the construction of new houses. Nonetheless, if we care about living in an integrated society, where people feel in control of their own lives and connected to their neighbourhoods, it is a good to which we should remain committed.