It’s almost seven years since David Cameron entered Downing Street. Tory Ministers might still like to blame Labour for the country’s problems but that excuse is sounding increasingly desperate. Nowhere is that more true than on housing.
Seven years in, the record of Conservative Ministers on housing is one of failure – on all fronts. In fact, there are few areas of domestic policy where they’ve been so disappointing, and where the gap between Ministers’ rhetoric and the reality for the public is so wide. It’s part of the reason why Labour retains a lead in the opinion polls on housing, with the NHS the only other issue for which this is true.
Ahead of a long-delayed housing relaunch and White Paper scheduled to be published any day now, it’s worth remembering the Conservatives’ record in the last seven years: the number of homes being built fell to the lowest level under any peace-time PM since the 1920s, rough sleeping homelessness has more than doubled since 2010, the number of affordable sub-market homes fell last year to the lowest level in 24 years, with the number of genuinely affordable social rented homes sinking to the lowest level since records began. Meanwhile, spending on housing benefit has risen by £4bn-a-year despite swingeing cuts, as the benefits system has had to try to do more to plug the growing gap between housing costs and household incomes.
But while people recognise – and perhaps by now expect – Conservative failure on homelessness and on affordable house building, I have also made it my mission to see that Labour focuses on an area of housing failure where Tory governments traditional pride themselves – home ownership.
An underappreciated fact is that under a Labour government from 1997 to 2010 a million more households became homeowners, but since 2010 the number of homeowners has fallen by 200,000. For young people it’s in free-fall, with over a third of a million fewer under-35s who now own their home than in 2010.
The fall is starkest amongst those on low and middle incomes, and spread across the regions – in Yorkshire and the East Midlands, not just in London and the South East. This is a big problem for Conservative politicians who have tried to take the mantle as the party for homeowners. It shows starkly that housing pressures aren’t just getting worse for those at the sharp end of the housing crisis. This is hitting middle Britain, too.
Alex Morton, one of David Cameron’s advisers, admitted: “This housing crisis, and the related feeling of unfairness, is the one thing Labour under Jeremy Corbyn could use to claw back into power. “So after a US election, during which Donald Trump’s supporters widely touted the fall in home ownership as an example of how ordinary Americans were shut out of the gains of national economic success, the Tories underestimate the significance of falling domestic home ownership at their peril.
It’s a problem for us all. Most British people own a home or want to, and we want the same for our children, but young people on modest incomes who can’t rely on financial help from their family are increasingly locked out of the housing market.
This steep decline is why I commissioned the ground-breaking Redfern Review, which I launched last autumn. Led by Taylor Wimpey’s chief executive, Pete Redfern, this was the first major inquiry into home ownership for over a decade. It details the causes of the decline in home ownership with unprecedented rigour, and sets the basis for my determination to put widening the opportunity for home ownership at the heart of Labour’s approach.
Wanting to help to boost home ownership runs deep for Labour. Back in 1965, the housing plans on which Harold Wilson would fight the 1966 general election promised that: “The expansion of building for owner occupation . . . reflects a long-term social advance which should gradually pervade every region.”
Anthony Crosland, a former cabinet minister with responsibility for housing, pledged five years later: “Both as a party and as individuals we are strongly in favour of home ownership.” At root level, the decline in home ownership is a deep concern for Labour because what matters to so many people in this country matters to us as a national party. And it also matters to Labour as a party committed for over a century to fighting inequality.
Housing accounts for about 60 per cent of total household wealth in Britain, excluding pensions. The bottom 10 per cent in property wealth is £2bn in debt while the top 10 per cent own about £1.5 trillion in property. The shrinking opportunity for young people on ordinary incomes to own a home is at the centre of the growing gulf between “housing haves” and “housing have-nots”.
The next Labour government will take action to fix the housing problems that so many people face. At the core of our new deal on housing will be a new national programme of affordable house building. I’ve set out previously in a report for the Adam Smith Institute think tank how a Labour government could build and pay for at least 100,000 genuinely affordable homes a year – trebling current levels of building. And we’d help renters with the cost and standard of housing with a new charter of renters’ rights.
But because for Labour our history, our political ambition and our principles all point to helping to boost the number of home owners as well as action to fixing the wider housing crisis, we’d also make it a priority to give young people on ordinary incomes the chance to become home owners.
We will prioritise the building of discounted homes to buy as well as council homes to rent, target government support to buy a home for young people on low and middle incomes who have suffered the most under the Tories, and look at fresh help for the close to one million existing home owners who struggle with unaffordable mortgage costs. The Tories’ seven years of failure on housing on all fronts gives Labour the opportunity to show the difference a Labour government to make – not just on affordable housing and homelessness, but on home ownership too.