Housing is the latest policy battleground to be thrust into the spotlight by party leaders, with both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition today setting out their stalls on house-building.
Housing is one of those issues that almost everyone agrees is important – 81% identified it as a ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ important issue in a recent Populus poll – but it rarely comes in amongst the most important issues when ranking the leading issues that people care about. In our own Issues Tracker, which uses the latest YouGov data, housing currently ranks a respectable sixth on the most important issue facing the country, selected by 17% of respondents. Ipsos MORI’s February 2015 Issues Index placed it eighth, selected by 13%.
So it is clearly an issue prioritised in its own right by many voters, albeit trailing the biggest beasts of issue importance such as the economy, immigration, health and welfare. But in many ways this masks the true importance of housing as an issue, as it touches on all of the aforementioned issues traditionally ranked by voters as the most important facing the country.
Take immigration for example. One of the principle arguments of those who favour tighter controls on immigration is that too many migrants results in a squeeze on access to housing for the native population. There are two possible solutions: 1) curb immigration; 2) build more houses.
The performance of the economy is deeply intertwined with trends in the housing market; some of the fiercest debates over welfare policy relate to housing benefit, most obviously on the infamous ‘Bedroom Tax’; and even on health, there are many scholarly articles examining the link between poor housing and poor health, due to factors such as cold, damp and overcrowding.
Viewed in this context, the prize for whichever party can offer the most compelling solution to the housing problem is potentially a great one. So, it is no surprise that all the main parties are eager to compete on this particular battlefield.
For the Conservatives, promoting home-ownership has long been a totemic policy, with the Thatcher government’s Right to Buy remaining one of the most hallowed policies in the eyes of the new generation of Tory politicians. The current government’s Help to Buy scheme is a nod in both name and spirit to that policy and has been the most high-profile attempt by David Cameron and George Osborne to rekindle the idea of the Tories as the party of home-ownership. Today’s pledge by the PM to build 200,000 new ‘starter homes’ for first time buyers in the next Parliament represents the next stage in that journey.
Cameron talks of a “quiet crisis” in affordability for young people seeking to get on the housing ladder. One person who would certainly agree with this assessment is Ed Miliband, who for obvious reasons seeks to link the issue of a crisis in housing affordability to his recurring campaign themes of a ‘cost of living crisis’ and that the next generation of young people will be denied the opportunities their parents took for granted. Miliband calls this ‘breaking the promise of Britain’, that each generation should do better than the last.
At a People’s Question Time event in Hove (a Labour target seat) today, Miliband outlined Labour’s plans to ensure 200,000 more homes are built each year by 2020. But perhaps just as significantly, Labour’s plan on housing includes major proposals to help those who are renting their homes, including new three year tenancies and a cap on rent increases. As shown by the English Housing Survey, the past ten years has seen a dramatic shift in the renting/ownership balance amongst the 25-34 year old age bracket. In 2003-04, the 21% of this group rented privately, as opposed to 59% owning their home. By 2013-14 this had moved to 48% renting versus just 36% owning. It is therefore no surprise that ‘Generation Rent’ is a key target audience for Labour’s housing policy.
Few can have failed to notice Natalie Bennett’s eye-catching proposal that the Greens would build 500,000 new social houses, which went viral last week for all the wrong reasons, while the Lib Dems have also set a more ambitious house-building target than Labour and the Tories, aiming for 300,000 new houses per year. Only UKIP has thus far declined to enter the bidding war of how many hundreds of thousands of new houses they would seek to build. Instead, their housing policy focuses on protecting greenfield sites, encouraging development on brownfield sites and curbing immigration to reduce the need for new developments in the first place.
So who do the public trust most on this important issue? In September 2014, Ipsos MORI found almost twice as many people (34-18) felt Labour was the party best placed to deal with the housing problem than the Conservatives, with the Lib Dems and UKIP trailing well behind. More recently, ComRes found Labour ahead of the Tories by a similar margin as the party most trusted on housing. So this is potentially fertile ground for Ed Miliband and his colleagues.
With the Conservatives well ahead on the economy, Labour well ahead on health and both trailing UKIP on immigration, we can expect to see the main parties increasingly looking to some of the issues slightly lower down the league table to gain a decisive advantage. Housing is one of the most likely issues on which they could achieve this.
Whichever party can unlock the housing issue could soon be unlocking the door to Number 10.