Like never before, the London mayoral election is going to be about housing

Housing is set to be the battleground as Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith compete to see who can call City Hall "home" in 2016. 

NS

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Whenever we speak to people up and down Britain about London, they talk about it like another country, with its “crazy” house prices and rents cited as proof positive. Inside the capital the housing crisis is felt so acutely that our research for London Councils, published last week, finds a third of adults saying that costs are pushing them to consider leaving.

The issue has been bubbling up in London for some time now. It has been more top-of-mind in London than it has elsewhere in Britain for at least as long as the Conservatives have been in Number 10 (with and without the Lib Dems), and is trending upwards as a national issue. In 2013, we found 39 per cent of Londoners giving a range of housing issues, mainly affordability, as “the most/other important issues facing London”. Last month it was 54 per cent, much higher than London’s perennial issues of transport (41 per cent) and crime (16 per cent). While the salience of housing has increased fifteen points in two years, economic issues have gone the opposite way by a similar margin.

Mindful of voters’ concerns about housing, both Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith have put it centre-stage of their early pitches, Goldsmith calling next May’s election a “referendum on housing”. But in doing so, they might want to heed the cautionary findings from our research. In particular, there is considerable pessimism in the capital; only one in 10 anticipate affordability will get better in the next two years or so, while two-thirds of private renters think they will never be able to buy. The candidates should be careful not to further stoke aspirations without certainty that they can intervene to solve a crisis prey to strong market forces.

We also know that in the electorate’s mind the issue of housing is not simply about supply, although clearly this is important and recognised as such by voters. For example, our research for both Berkeley Group and Create Streets shows that Londoners are not willing to entirely sacrifice quality for quantity. Tenure is an important issue too. While the aspiration for most people is firmly ownership, there is also appetite for mixed tenure provision, reflecting diverse needs and situations.

Housing offers huge electoral potential. It has got to the point where everyone thinks it important, whatever age, whichever class and tenure, inner or outer London. Thus, it cuts through all demographics and areas and, in contrast to the national picture, housing has as much traction among owner-occupiers as renters. This is significant because homeowners and mortgage holders are significantly more likely to vote, but in London their voting power is relatively weaker given the sheer number of renters (the majority in some London constituencies).

Candidates will need to have their tactical wits about them. For example, they will be mindful of sensitivities around both house price inflation – nationally, owner-occupiers think house price rises are good for them personally albeit bad for the country – and wary of any state intervention being seen as either depressing the value of many people’s prized assets, or feeding a wider impression that candidate’s instincts are anti-business.

In 2012 Ken Livingstone’s Living Rent proposal was apparently popular, but, this year Labour had a lead on housing policy at the general election and didn’t prevail. Talking to an issue is one thing, but for it to bite electorally, voters must perceive a difference between candidates and a capability to tackle the issue. Perceived competence on housing, as on other policy areas, will be central to next year’s election, and there is some convincing to be done to get past voters’ natural cynicism about promises.

The election is some way off, and Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan are in start-up mode. There is a lot for them to work through, but housing looks sure to be a big part of their plans and of the election itself.

Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI.