In today’s Sunday Times, Dominic Raab claims that over the past 25 years immigration has pushed up house prices in the UK by 20 per cent.
This isn’t the first time he has cited the link between migration and housing – here’s a Belfast Telegraph article from February on the theme – but it is the first time we have seen hard figures put on the impact.
According to Raab, these have been provided to him by civil servants at the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government (MHCLG) and are drawn from figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) dating from 2016 back to 1991.
It would be useful to have more details. They might tell us, for example, to what extent that overall 20 per cent figure is being fuelled by extremely wealthy foreigners turbo-charging London’s high-end property market, as opposed to broader pressures with a greater impact on the ordinary voter.
But from a policy-making specific the raw figures are less interesting than Raab’s announcement that he is writing to the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) “urging it to consider the negative effects of new arrivals on housing demand as well as the positive economic benefits of immigration.” Which implies, somewhat surprisingly, that it doesn’t do so already.
A quick search of the Government website suggests this is the case. Of the 94 MAC publications listed, only one title refers to housing – and that paper is from 2011. Of the rest, especially those most recent papers on the first page, the overwhelming majority focus on the economy and the labour market.
Perhaps this ought not be so surprising: after all the MAC’s own website describes its composition as “a chair and 3 other independent economists”, and a strong focus on the economic impact of immigration reflects the consensus view at the top of British politics before the Brexit vote. With housing now rising to prominence as a front-rank political issue, it makes sense for the Government to ensure that this development is accounted for by any independent body or quango which supports policy in this area.
But this story is also illustrative of the dangers of over-reliance on independent bodies to steer inherently political policy questions in an era when appeals to “evidence-based policy” often end up short-circuiting proper debate.
How many of us, when weighing expert interventions from groups such as the MAC, stop to consider the political assumptions underlying their frame of reference? If it had delivered a report on the economic impact of immigration that didn’t encompass housing, how long might we have debated the policy implications of those findings before someone noticed?
Before the Brexit referendum, I wrote that we needed to inject a greater degree of political consciousness (and where appropriate, accountability) into realm of quangos and public appointments. After the huge kick to the system voters delivered just a month later, that task is if anything more important than ever.