Housing and the General Election

Three days after Theresa May called the General Election I received my first voting intentions survey. The first question asked what I thought was the major issue and housing was not one of the options in the list. I never answered the question but on reflection I can see why housing did not appear as an issue.

Parents and grandparents may be forking out for first-time buyers’ deposits. For those not so lucky there may be an issue in that affordable housing is anything but. There may be a diminishing supply of real social housing (about to be made worse by the extended Right to Buy if it ever staggers past the starting line). Young people may be denied Housing Benefit and consigned to a life of sofa surfing. Despite (or perhaps because of) George Osborne’s incessant demand side tinkering and sometimes misguided planning reforms, the rate of new housing construction has been abysmally low for over a decade. On top of that, of course, is the ongoing threat to funding for supported housing.

However, the reality is that none of these things really hurt the majority of people who will actually turn out and vote. Or, even if they do hurt them, they do not hurt them enough to displace other issues that will determine how they vote on 8th June.

So what can people concerned about housing expect or hope for from this General Election?

It would be a good thing if all the main parties’ manifestos could set out a clear set of costed policies which had the ambition to address the extent of the housing crisis. That would include a recognition that the private sector on its own is incapable of delivering the size of new-build programme needed. History confirms that we have only ever built at the level now needed when there has been a large scale public sector programme running alongside the private sector’s efforts. Skills and financial capacity from both councils and housing associations should be used to implement this programme.

It would also be a good thing if all political parties would recognise the financial reality of people on low incomes not being able to afford the economic cost of decent housing. This means dropping artificial definitions of affordable housing and providing supply-side subsidy (whether from grant or cross-subsidy from market housing) that allows rents to be set at sensible levels in relation to low incomes. This means drawing back from “letting the rents take the strain”. It also means recognising that owner-occupation is not the solution for everyone. A coherent housing policy would have policies for home ownership, market rent and subsidised rent.

At the time of writing none of the parties has published its manifesto. The Tories began to move in the correct direction with some elements of the Autumn Statement and the general tone of their recent White Paper. But they did not go far enough. The General Election is the time for all parties to produce ambitious, comprehensive and properly resourced housing policies.

Kim Penfold
April 2017