In 2003, home ownership reached a peak. Seventy-one per cent of us were owner-occupiers. Since then the proportion has steadily declined – with much reflection on how “generation rent” has struggled to “get on the housing ladder”. But in February the English Housing Survey for 2014/15 was published. It suggested that the situation had stabilised. The figure was 63.6 per cent – up very slightly from 63.3 the previous year.
Another measure of trends in tenure is the Dwelling Stock Estimate. This uses the Census as the base and then updates it based on returns from local authorities using council tax data. It found that in 2014/15 the number of owner-occupied homes increased by 37,000 to 14.7 million. However, it found a very slight fall in the proportion – from 62.8 per cent to 62.5 per cent – due to a greater increase in the number of other homes.
So by one measure it’s up 0.3 per cent, by another down 0.3 per cent. Allowing for that being a tiny change either way and the “margin of error” it’s probably reasonable to say the rate is steady.
If so there is surely a good chance that the historic Conservative mission of wider home ownership will once again advance.
Last week the Housing and Planning Bill received the Royal Assent. It contains important reforms which will firmly establish the Conservatives as the Party of aspiration. It survived persistent attacks from (home owning) socialist politicians not least in the House of Lords. It is a tribute to Brandon Lewis, the Housing Minister, who showed thoroughness and persistence in pressing ahead. There is the right to buy for housing association tenants. There is the Starter Homes initiative and the boost to the self build sector.
There was another boost for home ownership last week. The Court of Appeal upheld the rule that smaller builders – developing sites of ten homes or fewer – do not have to make an affordable housing contribution. Given the already heavy bureaucratic burden on the planning process for small developments this requirement often meant small sites were not viable.
Set against this, of course, is that the scarcity of supply continues to make buying a home ever more expensive. Far more state land should be sold for the development of attractive housing. There is great potential for popular new housing with estate redevelopment – provided beauty is a central requirement. Of course Zac Goldsmith’s defeat in the Mayor of London election was a setback for this agenda. But David Cameron also appreciates the point. In January he wrote about the sink estates where:
“…concrete slabs dropped from on high, brutal high-rise towers and dark alleyways that are a gift to criminals and drug dealers. The police often talk about the importance of designing out crime, but these estates actually designed it in. Decades of neglect have led to gangs, ghettos and anti-social behaviour. And poverty has become entrenched, because those who could afford to move have understandably done so.
“One of the most concerning aspects of these estates is just how cut-off, self-governing and divorced from the mainstream these communities can become. In some places, there is severe social segregation, and it damages us all when communities simply don’t come into contact with one another. And that allows social problems to fester and grow unseen. The riots of 2011 didn’t emerge from within terraced streets or low-rise apartment buildings. As spatial analysis of the riots has shown, the rioters came overwhelmingly from these post-war estates. Almost three quarters of those convicted lived within them. That’s not a coincidence.”
Changing these estates from clusters of tower blocks to terraced streets and mansion squares will mean not just better homes but more homes – with much more home ownership included in the mix.
There should also be a right to shared ownership for those in social housing who would like to buy but can’t afford to even with the existing schemes.
So there is much more to do. But amidst all the talk of radicalism being put on hold with the EU referendum even the reforms already announced should prove enough to see a modest recovery in the home ownership rate.