House price "hope"—for whom?

The have-nots don't get a word in.

As if to underscore the message of Through the keyhole, our week of themed posts on Britain's housing crisis, YouGov has released its Household Economic Activity Tracker for February, which reports an improvement in economic optimism of 3.5 points to 98 (where 100 on the index is neither optimistic nor pessimistic).

The report states:

YouGov’s data suggest the driving force in this improvement is a growing belief among home owners that the property market has stopped falling and has actually strengthened – especially in London. One in three (29%) people in the capital believe house prices rose in February compared with just 7% who think they fell. In the UK as a whole, just 14% of respondents in February thought their home decreased in value during the previous month, down from 18% in January and 27% in August 2012.

For the first time since mid-2010, the average homeowner expects prices to rise over the coming year. Almost a third (31%) of respondents expect house prices to be higher a year from now, more than double the percentage (14%) who think they will be lower. Survey respondents are looking for a 0.6% rise in home prices on average over the coming year, compared with the 0.1% decrease they expected last month.

This property bounce appears to be having a positive effect on the homeowners’ household finances, with fewer households reported a deteriorating financial situation compared to last month. Those who believe the value of their house increased during February were twice as likely to think their overall financial situation had improved compared to those who thought their property’s value had stagnated or declined (9.2% to 4.6%).

It's only a measure of expectations, so shouldn't be taken as any sort of valid prediction of the future of the housing market. But what interested me, in the context of our housing week, is the apparently unthinking tone taken in the release, which is even headed House price hope sees economic optimism reach two year high. Owner-occupiers are still the most common type of households in Britain, making up 65 per cent of the total according to government statistics, but that's been on a downward trend since it peaked in 2003 at 71 per cent. For 35 per cent of the nation, the fact that house prices are rising again does not represent "hope" at all — it pushes the chance of ever owning a home further into the distance, and is likely to feed through to higher rents in the future.

That gap, between owner-occupiers and others, is largely a generational divide, and there are some who will be able to look to parents for the nest-egg they need when they feel the time is right. But that just strengthens the other divide, between the haves and have-nots. And this report highlights that mostly, when we speak of the "health" of the housing market, the have-nots don't get a word in.

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.

Paul McMillan
Show Hide image

"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496