Do we actually want to be a society of homeowners?

High rates of home ownership have large negative effects on the labour market. Why are we trying to boost it?

It is widely understood that Britain's housing market is (how to put this delicately) sub-par.

Nearly everyone agrees that there are problems which need fixing. We have a society built around homeowning, in which the average age of a first time buyer is inexorably rising. We have a social housing system which involves the state paying rents to private sector landlords, even as private sector rents are rising faster than inflation. We have a planning regime which is slow enough to deliver judgments that it encourages developers to create "banks" of property with permission, just in case the time comes to build. And widespread as these problems are, they are an order of magnitude worse in London and the South East.

But while there's agreement on the problems – and much discussion about what policies might ease them – there's far less examination of what the ideal housing market would look like.

Would homes be owned by individuals, companies or the state? Would multifamily accommodation (blocks of flats, in other words) make up a higher proportion of the housing mix, or is our love affair with the house permanent? How acceptable is flat sharing? What about room sharing? What are the minimum standards we should accept from new builds? Is the problem that mortgages aren't available, or that house prices are too high? Is the solution to insecure tenancies more secure tenancies or fewer tenancies full stop?

These questions seem uncomfortably micro-level to be discussing, but at least some of them are crucial to answer before we can make a real stab at implementing effective reforms to housing policy. And the most important one of all is the one which no-one wants to address: why do we want to own our own homes?

Obviously, given current policy, the answer is clear. The last two decades have been about shoring up the housing market, guaranteeing house prices will never fall, and making it easier to buy in. Conversely, renting has remained as insecure as ever, but with more and more people renting more and more houses, it's a landlord's market.

But if policy could be reformed to make it harder to buy a house but in a way which made renting a far better choice, should it?

One way to answer the question is to look at the wider effects of owning or renting your home. A paper from our own David Blanchflower and the University of Warwick's Andrew Oswald does just that, examining the effects of high rates of home-ownership on one aspect of the economy: the labour market.

Oswald argued twenty years ago that a lot of people owning their own houses would result in higher rates of unemployment. The reasoning is intuitive: a home is a burden, keeping you tied to one place; and a mortgage keeps you tied to a minimum salary. Insofar as it is easier to move out of a rental property than it is to sell a house and buy a new one, we would then expect people who own homes (all else being equal) to be less flexible about the sort of work they can take – and so we'd expect them to be more likely to be unemployed.

Aggregate it up, and we would expect economies with higher levels of home-ownership to have higher unemployment rates. And that's what Blanchflower and Oswald have found:

We find that rises in the home-ownership rate in a US state are a precursor to eventual sharp rises in unemployment in that state… A doubling of the rate of home-ownership in a US state is followed in the long-run by more than a doubling of the later unemployment rate.

Oswald's 1990s argument is backed up by the fact that areas with higher ownership have lower mobility – as we would expect – but there are two further effects that the authors find.

The first is that high home-ownership areas have longer commute-to-work times. That could be because home-ownership tends to promote less dense housing, due to the difficulties in selling rather than renting multifamily accommodation, and the contrary difficulties in renting rather than selling single houses.

The second is that high home-ownership areas have lower rates of business formation. The authors speculate that "this may be due to zoning or NIMBY effects", and offer it as a point for future research.

The conclusion, that "the housing market can generate important negative externalities upon the labor market", poses some tricky questions for nearly everyone discussing housing policy in Britain today. We may still want to build more, lower rents, and improve quality of life for tenants; but this research suggests that, rather than making it so that more people can buy their homes, we should make it so that more people don't feel like they have to buy their own homes. In short, make renting fairer, not buying easier.

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: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation