Are 80 proposals enough to fix the housing market for good? With her speech earlier this week outlining the Government’s plan to tackle the omnipresent housing crisis, it seems Theresa May believes they are. It is clear from her announcement that the Tories are determined to demonstrate that they are capable of placing something at the centre of their domestic policy other than Brexit. That is vital if the Tories are to avoid making the next Election a plebiscite on the Brexit deal.
Housing is a supreme touchpoint retail political issue: a recent ComRes poll for Shelter found that almost half (48%) of British adults have experienced problems or worries about their home, with affordability being the most common concern.
May called upon property developers to ‘do their duty for Britain’, offering strongly worded criticism for those who gain planning permission but then do not follow through on building on the land. The resulting commentary on this noted the dual responsibility between government, particularly local councils, and property developers in ensuring affordable homes for all. When ComRes polled MPs for British Property Federation, one third (35%) felt that local authorities in their constituency are not allocating enough land for homes more generally. Local authorities and property developers operate as two sides of the same coin, alternately blamed for a lack of affordable homes across the country but, as Lord Porter indicated, without extra funding, there is little that can change in this situation.
A ComRes poll for London Chamber of Commerce in 2017 found that 70% of business decision makers in the Capital are concerned about the impact that 54% of ‘blue’ emergency service workers living outside of London will have on the city’s emergency services, and the PM made a clear example out of this issue in her proposals. Prioritising key public sector workers in distributing affordable homes is seldom without controversy but it is an obvious – if limited – policy response to the affordability crisis in London.
The PM’s interest in housing planning law reform reflects her personal reflection on the security her own first home offered. This is hugely important too for voters: ComRes research for Shelter revealed that almost two-thirds (63%) of those who have ever had a housing problem said that it had a negative impact on their mental health. The problem is a deep-seated one, causing anguish and concern to many, but is the policy response radical enough?
The consistent focus upon owner-occupation as the most important housing model throughout the speech suggests not. Theresa May links home ownership to the ability to partake in a democratic society, sticking to traditional structures of how citizenship is exercised by people through their acts of consumption. Shared ownership was the last properly ‘innovative’ idea, although it appears to have fallen by the wayside recently, in spite of strong support for it from renters. Among private renters, and excluding 'don't knows', some three quarters (78%) say that, if the same property were available to rent or to buy through shared ownership, and the cost each month was the same, they would choose to buy through shared ownership. It is a popular vehicle.
The Prime Minister hit all the right notes in her keynote speech: young people unable to access affordable homes, public sector workers struggling to live near their workplace, encouraging developers to ‘do their duty’. But ultimately the Government’s reliance on the traditional owner-occupation model is risky, since land is a finite resource and so will always be expensive. Tackling the supply-side is certainly one part of the solution but, to bring about a proper housing transformation will require looking at financial and other measures that can bring property within the reach of those who aspire to own a place they can call home.