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

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

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.

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

Marc Stears is the chief executive of the New Economics Foundation

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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