The political classes lagging not leading on housing

The signs of housing stress accumulate. On top of established problems of affordability among young people living independently we are seeing increasing numbers of households sharing and a rise in multigenerational households as children find it more and more difficult to leave the parental home.

A sense of injustice about the state of the housing market sits just below the surface of many conversations across generations. It doesn’t take much to trigger some heated words from those who feel they have been shut out of the housing market by the selfish actions of their elders. Something I experienced again the other day.

Allister Heath has a comment piece in today’s Telegraph in which he highlights what he describes as Westminster’s deafening conspiracy of silence over the major policy challenges facing the UK. He highlights three policy areas. The first two are funding the NHS and dealing with the public spending deficit.

The third is the dysfunction of the housing market. Here he argues:

All the parties agree that far too few homes are being built; but the solutions on offer are woefully inadequate, and wilfully misrepresent the true scale and scope of the problem. Britain’s housing stock is of insufficient quality; its new-builds are frequently in the wrong place and are far smaller than those found in other Western countries; and, crucially, prices are far too high and rising, crushing the home-ownership dreams of millions.

That is an analysis that many housing commentators would broadly agree with, even if they are not in the habit of agreeing with Heath’s uber free-market approach to dealing with this – indeed, any and every – problem.

The problem here is typically diagnosed as being that politicians feel constrained to offer relatively modest policy solutions and tinkering round the edges because they fear voters will reject anything more radical. The views of older NIMBY and BANANA voters, seeking to preserve their property values, prevail.

Many commentators call for greater bravery from politicians. There is a need to tell a better story about the benefits of local development. Our leaders need to provide a more convincing narrative about the social and economic benefits of new development in order to overcome local resistance. This was one of the themes of this week’s Elphicke-House report on the role of local authorities in housing supply.

But what if the diagnosis is wrong? Or, rather, what if it is out of date?

This week Shelter have provided some useful commentary based on recent British Social Attitudes data. The argument is that as housing problems have become more acute – more self-evident and touching directly and indirectly on more people’s lives – so the opposition to development has softened.

Indeed, it can credibly be argued that over the last three or four years opinion has swung strongly in favour of more housing development.

Those who primarily focus their attention on the micro-machinations within the Westminster Bubble may well have missed some very important shifts in the broader context. No doubt it will take political bravery to break away from the conspiracy of minimal policy ambition. But it may be that the task is to push at a partially open, rather than locked and bolted, door.

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  1. Interesting piece. There is similar dysfunction across policy areas – in many there is a willingness to sign up to policy objectives but a backing away from engagement with the politics that would be required to implement them. I wrote a post about this (http://buyingqp.com/2015/01/27/against-fatalism/) in response to an American think tank’s proposals for more ‘inclusive prosperity’. Ed Balls was on the Board of Commissioners who spent two years researching and producing the paper and there is a clear disconnect between the policies the paper argues/produces evidence for and the political position the Labour party are taking. Most of the recommendations in the paper are ones that ‘progressives’ have been making for years (on higher wages, infrastructure investment, better support for parents, improved trade union representation, global tax and trade etc) but despite multiple policy reports from think tanks and academics they don’t have the political narrative or answers to sell these messages as strengths/change the conversation and instead cower within the strivers/shirkers type narrative set up by the right.

    • Thanks for your comment. It certainly feels like part of the problem is not so much a failure to recognise that feasible policy must sit within the Overton Window but a failure to recognise that the Overton window can shift. That shift can occur quite rapidly as a consequence of external developments – which may well be what is happening in housing policy. But it can also be shifted by the promotion of consistent narratives. However, the second approach can take quite a long time to create the conditions that are conducive to policy change.

      One of the problems with politics as currently conceived is that, possible because few policy positions are held consistently on the basis of strongly held values, consistency of narrative – or counter-narrative – is not good. In the UK perhaps the clearest example of consistent messaging is the Libdems “stronger economy, fairer society” which has now been running for several years. It’s just unfortunate that it is rather vacuous. To build a counter narrative that could shift prevailing views on eg benefit recipients, immigration, or the intrinsic inefficiency of public services would take concerted work by many hands for extended periods of time. Seemingly, dominant views are rooted in beliefs that cannot easily be subverted by evidence alone.

      • I was going to say that the LibDems never seem to be on the right side of the Overton shifts, but that’s actually almost completely wrong. There’s something more complicated going on. Maybe a push to “seriousness” and “credibility.” One might (as I do below) blame the media for this in part.

        The Lib Dems were green long before it was fashionable, yet jettisoned it just as the Greens really seem to be a rising force. They had a decent critique of centralisation, but it seems to have been lost in Coalition. Ditto the slow rise of the idea of a Citizen’s Basic Income. (Not saying that CBI is practical politics now, or even in the medium term, but it’s definitely going into an Overton shift, but the LibDems seem to have lost connection with it over the last few years.)

        • Absolutely. Bizarre really. Libdems have originated plenty of good ideas but then seemingly struggle to stick with them.

  2. One of the trends I’m seeing (trends are part of my business, FWIW) is that more and more parents are feeling the pain of their children. The parents (I say this objectively, not accusingly) lived in a more sane property market /wage economy and then often had a bit of luck with price appreciation. However – the ongoing increase in prices is starting to cut into the ability of even those parents who did quite well to down-payment their kids onto the property ladder. At which point the realisation sets in that the situation has to change…

    Of course, the problem is that on this issue, as on so many, voters are not only ahead of politicians, they are poles apart from the media complex as well. (Think of attitudes to the NHS reforms, or rail privatisation.) It seems that we’ve yet to find some politicians who can connect up public attitudes with voting patterns and power.

    Perhaps it will take a crisis to create a Syriza or Podemos type movement. Or maybe we can hope that trends elsewhere will affect the political wind here. But it’s not looking good for this election. The ongoing narratives are dominated by fear and austerity, which essentially favour the status quo.

  3. Would be interesting to see how the rise of multigenerational households and households sharing compares to long-term trends. I have the anecdotal impression there has actually been a rise in the number of properties owned by single individuals. Of my parents generation people tended to move out of the family home to get married and therefore co-habit with a spouse, but my own generation seemed to have more people to aspiring to live alone in their own property. Of course many people house share out of necessity, but wasn’t it also so. Also, could do with looking at the levels of under-occupancy e.g. I live a street of semi-detached 3 bed houses, but a significant number are occupied by older couples or older single people. Unfortunately down sizing probably isn’t a good option as “later living” properties are generally very poor value.
    How much of this is a problem of under capacity, versus a problem of inefficient allocation of capacity?