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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.