Adam is a Senior Researcher for the Conservatives on the London Assembly. He writes here in a personal capacity.
The Conservative Party has long championed what it calls a “property-owning democracy”. From the terms first utterance by Noel Skelton in opposition to popular socialism in the 1920s, through to Harold Macmillan’s vast building schemes and Margaret Thatcher’s housing revolution, the Party has made it a core moral objective to spread and increase home ownership. In this respect, the current Government is no different, with plans to extend Right to Buy, Help to Buy and Right to Build as key manifesto commitments.
In his speech to launch that manifesto, David Cameron emphasised that, with the Conservatives, the dream of a property-owning democracy is very much alive, and George Osborne has repeatedly proclaimed that the Conservatives are the party of home ownership. These commitments and underlying themes all tap into the widely-held belief that an Englishman’s home is his castle.
Yet if this key principle is true, why have home ownership levels been falling for over a decade? And why is France, the home of socialism, set to overtake our levels of ownership this year? If an Englishman’s home is indeed his castle, then increasingly few of us possess a worthy citadel to call home.
When looking at our position compared to that of others within the EU, that old proverb seems little more than a distant pipe dream. Of the 29 EU Member States, the UK is the fifth worst performing, with only 65 per cent of the adult population owning property. Though this may sound impressive, it seems less so when you consider that Romania has 96 per cent ownership, and other large economies such as Poland (84 per cent), Spain (78 per cent) and Italy (74 per cent) are all above us in the EU league table.
Worryingly, we are drifting even further down the rankings as ownership levels continue to fall (another anomaly within Europe). Home-ownership in Britain peaked in 2002, and has since fallen to its lowest level in 24 years. Further, and despite demand-side schemes such as Help to Buy, we now have fewer first-time buyers than at any time since records began in 1980. The causes of this decline are varied, but the two largest factors are rising house prices driven by a lack of supply, and an absence of viable pathways out of social housing.
This marked decline is taking place despite the desire of most families and young professionals to get on the housing ladder. Polling suggests that almost nine out of ten people want, at some point, to become a home-owner. This is a damning indictment of successive governments that so many find it hard to purchase a home, and it suggests that the property-owning democracy is far from reaching real fruition.
Home ownership levels are not simply a financial measure; increasing ownership is also vital for the social well-being of Britain. Reductions in ownership levels increase pensioner poverty, worsen social problems for children in rented accommodation, and reduce living standards amongst low- to middle-income earners.
This last point will become increasingly important to conservatives over the next electoral cycle. Those voters in the C1/C2 social grade (or the “Just About Managing Class” as James Frayne of Policy Exchange describes them) are your typical swing voters. Lady Thatcher regularly polled well amongst them, and the key reason why Labour did so well in 1997 is because it attracted half of all C1/C2 voters.
The recent election result was undoubtedly a triumph for the Party, but it shouldn’t become a cause for complacency. The Party actually decreased its support amongst C1/C2 voters, and the Conservatives were net -2 in seats gained/lost to Labour: electoral victory was caused entirely by a Liberal Democrat collapse.
Long-term electoral dominance will only be delivered by attracting more C1/C2 voters, who are concentrated in Labour-held seats. The Liberal Democrats will not always poll so low, and a re-emergent Labour Party could well eradicate the Government’s slim majority come 2020. By capitalising the working class through increasing home-ownership, and by creating the property-owning democracy in reality, the Conservative Party can begin to make the progress it needs to in the old coalfields. Because as a rule, home-owners vote “blue”.
With work and employment, both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made clear their aspirations for the working class by pursuing what they term “full employment”. Cameron has categorised this as an employment rate above Germany’s, and Osborne has classified it as the highest employment rate in the G7. Either way, they have backed-up their aspirations with a concrete policy objective.
With home ownership, a similar overarching objective is required. The Conservatives should make it their over-riding priority to seek “full ownership” within a generation. This would require Britain to enter the top half of the EU home-ownership league table. A target of 75 per cent home-ownership (a ten per cent increase) would do this, and would take us from where we currently languish near the bottom of the table.
The pursuit of property-owning democracy is the right moral cause for the Conservative Party. Capitalising the poor would not only reap social benefits, it would tread the way for long-term electoral success in the North, the Midlands and London – those Labour heartlands where a future Conservative majority will be won. Adopting a target of “full ownership” would re-affirm the Party’s commitment to creating a nation of home-owners and should become the over-arching goal for all housing policy.