Part of the story of the last General Election was how many younger voters, with the aspiration to become home owners, decided to vote for a Marxist-led Labour Party in frustration at the difficulty in seeing their dreams realised. It might seem an odd protest, but if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Has anything changed during the last couple of years? Not fundamentally. As the Prime Minister might put it, there has been a period of “dithering and delay” regarding housing policy under his predecessor, as on other issues.
Whisper it softly. While there has been no breakthrough, there has been some modest, incremental progress. Property prices have been becalmed – falling slightly in London, rising roughly in line with inflation elsewhere. At the same time, we have seen real wages rise. It follows that this makes buying a home more affordable (or less unaffordable) than previously. The latest English Housing Survey says:
“In 2017-18, there were an estimated 14.8 million households who either owned their home outright or were buying with a mortgage. This represents 64 per cent of all households. More than half (53 per cent) of owner-occupiers (and 34 per cent of all households) own their home outright.”
A year earlier, the figure for home ownership was 63 per cent. A year before that, it was the same. Home ownership peaked at 71 per cent in 2003. An increase from 63 per cent to 64 per cent might be just margin of error territory, though the sample of 13,000 for the survey is pretty hefty. Or it might be the start of a trend. The other guide is the Dwelling Stock Estimates. That is also mildly encouraging in terms of the latest data:
“The proportion of dwellings in owner-occupation increased steadily from the 1980s to 2002 when it reached its peak of 69.5 per cent. Since then, owner-occupation gradually declined to level out at 62.4 per cent in 2015 and 2016, increasing slightly to 63.2 per cent in 2018.”
If we already have a slight trend in place and we can notch up a percentage point each year, then after a few years that becomes rather important. If the radicalism of the new regime sees bold reforms such as the easing of planning restrictions and a reduction in Stamp Duty then that would be further encouragement.
There is a caveat. These figures are for households not individuals. After children grow up, they are staying at home with their parents for longer. If the son of a home owning couple is still in situ, aged 32, unable to afford to rent or buy, then he is in an “owner-occupied” property. That does not mean it is a satisfactory outcome. It may be very annoying for all concerned.
What about the expectations of those renting that they will one day be able to buy?
“In 2017-18, 25 per cent of social renters expected to buy a property at some point in the future, down from 30 per cent in 2016-17. A greater proportion of private renters expect to buy – 58 per cent, unchanged from 2016-17.”
In many ways, the situation for the social renters is where it is easiest for the Government to make a difference. The promise to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants, on equivalent terms available to council tenants, has yet to be fulfilled. The Conservatives need to get on and deliver it. There must also be a right to shared ownership brought in.
Boris Johnson, speaking at the Conservative Home fringe meeting at the Party Conference last year, recalled being a young reporter on the Wolverhampton Express and Star and being sent to see a couple who were complaining about damp. He said:
“It was a terrible scene. They were sitting there and with the heating on full blast and a baby crying, and the condensation dripping down the window, and there were these great black spores all over the wall. The chap was in his socks in an armchair and in a state of total despair. He was worried about the baby’s cough – which was getting worse. The council wouldn’t do anything, and he felt he couldn’t do anything – because it was not his property, and I could see that he felt somehow unmanned by the situation. And I felt very sorry for them both – because they were total prisoners of the system.”
That remains the reality. It is no solution to make speeches about how “social housing is a force for good.” Overall it has been disastrous – although much of the early Housing Association building was attractive, thanks to philanthropists with a sense of pride in the legacy they were providing. Nor is it much use to patronisingly tell people trapped in the system that they simply mustn’t feel any stigma about such tenure. People tend to spot that Conservative politicians telling them how splendid social housing is, have generally taken the opportunity of home ownership for themselves and their families.
So we should not despair. Home ownership is not a lost cause. It should be embraced by Conservatives as a moral as well as a political mission. The young are just as ambitious to achieve it as were previous generations.