Homeownership isn't a good aim of policy

A nation of homeowners isn't better than a nation of renters – and it may even be worse.

Over the weekend, Adam Posen, a former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, made a point beloved of economists but all-too-rare in circles of public debate: there's not actually any reason to think home ownership is a good thing. Posen writes (in the Financial Times, although it's reposted outside the paywall by his employers the Peterson Institute):

Policies to increase home ownership do not necessarily improve the supply or distribution of housing, as the UK experience demonstrates, and often works against it. The OECD’s Better Life Index shows that no relationship exists between a country’s home-ownership levels and its average housing satisfaction and quality. And there is no iron law that higher-income economies must have higher rates of home ownership: Mexico, Nepal and Russia all have home-ownership rates of more than 80 per cent, while the French, German and Japanese rates are 30-40 percentage points lower. The US and the UK rates sit between them at about 65 to 70 per cent.

As housing policy, home ownership is pretty bloody terrible. Matt Yglesias, commenting on Posen's post, points out that it's essentially encouraging massive investments in what is, at heart, a consumer good. (Land is a commodity, but the house on top is a durable good). That then leads to the political debate around housing turning into a debate around how best to preserve the value of that consumer good. Imagine, Yglesias writes, a world in which most people had a car worth hundreds of thousands of pounds:

If we banned the construction of new cars and trucks, then America's existing stock of cars and trucks would become more valuable, but this would be a way of impoverishing the country, not enriching it.

To make the same point more succinctly, I always like coming back to Dan Davies of Crooked Timber:

 

 

Housing policy requires cheap houses, but the politics of lots of people owning houses leads to a pressure for continued increase in the sale price of homes.

(That's made worse still by the peculiarities of the UK housing market, specifically the typical way buy-to-let financing works. The landlord buys a house, the rent pays the mortgage, and then they profit from the appreciation on the property. That means it's not enough even for house prices to be stable; they need continued, reliable increases)

Indirectly, then, policies to support homeownership render effective housing policy impossible. But they also have damaging direct effects.

Treating homeownership as an untrammelled good serves to disguise the trade-off inherent in buying a house. Renting has a place in the housing mix: it allows people to live in a house without being tied to it, lets them pass on the financial risk of repairs, lets them avoid the need for loans or capital, and lets them downsize fair By increasing the relative cost of renting, the choice between owning a house and renting one becomes a no-brainer: if you can afford a house, you should buy one.

That leads to the sort of problems highlighted by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald earlier this year: homeownership is correlated with unemployment. Buying a house ties you to a particular area, and a particular labour market; it increases the hurdle required to move to find work. Similarly, buying a house locks you into a particular mortgage payment, making it a lot harder to take a pay cut (while retraining, say), which can amplify the effects of sectoral shifts.

Homeownership as a policy to be pursued has a steadily increasing set of downsides, and a steadily decreasing set of upsides. Whether that means change will actually come is a different question, though.

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 Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.