Through the keyhole: introducing the New Statesman's housing week

Over the next week, we're going to be examining the state of housing in Britain today.

Britain's housing situation is shambolic.

Since 1988, house prices have increased by 55 per cent in real terms according to the Halifax house price index — and almost all of that rise happened in just two years. Between 2002 and 2004 the average price of a house in the UK shot from £101,113 to £148,399. Since the market's peak, in 2007, the price of the average UK house has actually declined in real terms, but the price-to-earnings ratio of a house still stands at 4.5:1.

The bad situation nationwide is worse in our cities. As our economy steadily moves away from agriculture and manufacturing towards services, there is an ever-greater incentive to centralise our working lives in these hubs of activity. But expansive green belts stop us building our cities out, and the difficulty of getting planning permissionnot to mention the continued unpopularity of high-rise living — stop us building up.

As house prices have risen, we've also radically changed the way we provide accommodation for the poorest in society. In the post-war era, house-building was done by a mixture of local authorities and private enterprise. By the end of Thatcher's premiership, local authorities had largely stopped building homes altogether; and as a result of the recession, the number of new units built per year by private enterprise has also halved.

Gone is the idea of a council home for life, ideally ensuring stability, community and safety. Those ideals were rarely met, and it's undeniable that council estates had their flaws, but the alternative is worse. The private rental sector is expected to pick up the slack, with rents subsidised by the government's housing benefit. Landlords can, and do, raise rents at any time, forcing families from substandard house to substandard house — and occasionally to hostels, B&Bs and even the streets.

Even while the bottom end of the market is being forced to turn to the private rental sector, the top end is as well. The 0 per cent deposits of the pre-crisis world are gone, apparently forever. But while mortgages have reverted to the nineties, house prices haven't, and so, according to Halifax, the average age of a first-time buyer is now 30 years old (rising to 32 in London). If you want to live in a city, and don't have a nest-egg from your parents, your only option is to rent, usually indefinitely.

An increasing proportion of people renting at both ends of the housing market, matched with the precipitous drop in housebuilding since 2007, obviously means a squeeze on rents. But the government responded, not by tackling the cause, but by capping the amount of housing benefit people could receive, locking a whole social class out of large swathes of London.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the implicit promise that a house purchase is something that you can only ever make money on. If house prices were to fall, that would be disastrous for most people who own property, and that disaster would be passed on to the general economy. But if housing costs are not to fall, then Britain's young people and renters will have to carry on living through the disaster we are already experiencing. "The whole of British housing policy can be seen as an effort to reduce the cost of housing without affecting house prices", says Dan Davies, and that's a doomed attempt from the start.

Over the next week, we're going to be examining these concerns in greater detail. We'll look at the private rental sector, at the criminalisation of squatting and at the virtues of high-rises; we'll also be investigating the cost of the bedroom tax, and the implications of the housing benefit cap. If you think you have something to add to the discussion, you can tweet me or email me, and all the pieces will be collected here (and here) as the week goes on.

Monday: George Eaton on how the bedroom tax will hit disabled people, and Alex Hern on the death of Daniel Gauntlett due to the new anti-squatting laws.

Tuesday: Preston Byrne on why the Eastleigh by-election set back reform of planning laws, and Labour MP Helen Goodman on how trying to live on £18 a week showed the unfairness of the bedroom tax. 

Wednesday: Social researcher Declan Gaffney demonstrates how housing benefit has risen through need alone, and Simon Parkin on the dilemma faced by his grandparents as one of them has to go into care.

Thursday: Jeremy Messenger paints a picture of the omnipresent lack of stability, the invasion of privacy and the constant threat of being moved on tenants in the private rental sector experience, and VMC Rozario gives an innovative idea for how to build more houses.

Friday: Rebecca Tunstall on how housing traps people in unemployment.

A housing estate in Glasgow. 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
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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.