We need to talk about the British property cult

Something should be done about the housing crisis before it's too late.

I was discussing the implications of the British Government’s recent spending review for housing associations when news of the civil unrest in Egypt started to come through. The housing crisis is much debated and its scale and significance are well recognised.We wondered whether the issue would ever lead to widespread protests. We started thinking about the poll tax riots of the 1990s which effectively put paid to Prime Minister Thatcher. Would the bedroom tax lead to similar unrest?

No: on the whole the people affected are either too old or too poor to protest with any force. More importantly the sentiment of the vocal masses is consumed by the UK’s one permitted greed: ownership.

But what will happen when a majority of people expecting to own a house find themselves not just priced out but physically excluded by a lack of available housing? These will be the children of the people with most influence over policy and public order and not just the weak, the poor and the vulnerable. This may offer a glimmer of hope to the CEOs of those housing associations that are neither too big to fail nor niche enough to be essential.

There are already indications some policy makers have seen that the demographics are shifting. As Janan Ganesh wrote in the Financial Times last week, it is inevitable that taxation’s focus will shift from income to assets. This has already started with increases to stamp duty on luxury houses and an end to the Council Tax discount on second homes. Income taxes are being reduced at both ends of the income scale.

Home ownership cuts to the heart of the conundrum facing the housing associations that provide the bulk of the UK’s social housing. Investors much prefer the yields achieved with privately owned housing to the lower, albeit steadier, returns offered by housing associations. Yes, this is changing but not quickly and not for all. The result is that few of the existing housing associations will be able to fund expansion and therefore few will survive the coming rigours of a mixed-economy market.

The obstacle is obvious. If the UK’s housing stock were to increase to meet demand then house prices would stop rising and the "investment" potential that drives almost every purchase and every single mortgage decision would be diminished. And no-one with a current investment, whether as a lender or an owner, will tolerate this. The success of the UK’s housing ladder is dependent on it being pulled up higher and higher with each generation. Like main-frame computers in the 1980s, residual values are always predicted to be far greater than the purchase price. This is a problem that has been known for decades, as David Miles points out in his Bank of England Report. The report also highlights that the problem gets worse as population density increases. Not only will house-price rises greatly outpace wage inflation, land availability will become even scarcer. Housing associations will have to fight for land, for financing and for affluent tenants able to afford the ever rising rents. Something has to give.

Will this really pave the way for a new levy on housing and an assault on the British property cult? If so perhaps the usual restraint will crumble and we will see waves of street protests, albeit more Glastonbury meets Glyndebourne rather than Tahrir Square meets Jarrow March.

Housing associations will have to fight for land, for financing and for affluent tenants able to afford the ever rising rents. Photograph: Getty Images

Spencer Neal is a reformed publisher who now advises on media and stakeholder relations at Keeble Brown. He writes about the ironies and hypocrisies that crop up in other peoples' businesses. He is also an optimist.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.