Joe Smallman argues that we will need both private and social housebuilding in order the escape Britain's housing crisis.
Britain’s housing market is not working. To young people, this may seem blindingly obvious. Across the country, rental prices have powered ahead of inflation while workers - especially those in the public sector - have seen real terms pay cuts. According to a recent report by Zoopla, rents in London increased by a shattering 17% in 2022. And while prices go up, landlords are engaged in a race to the bottom on standards with inadequate insulation, damp, and potentially lethal black mould widespread issues for renters.
To many older people, though, the housing market offers more advantages. Homeownership among over 65s is high and increasing year-on-year, as the generation that benefited from Thatcher’s Right to Buy get older. This is not necessarily a bad thing; homeownership provides a sense of security and rootedness in a community. But as prices rise, houses are valued more as an asset to extract value from than as homes.
In 2018-19, the average house increased in value by £24,000 while the average British worker took home just £23,000. When we have a status quo where a house is ‘earning’ more than its occupant, one would expect housing to be among Labour’s top priorities. And yet it was conspicuously absent from Keir Starmer’s ‘Five Missions’.
Generational inequality in the housing market has become a structural issue within UK politics. Not only are the young becoming disillusioned with an impenetrable housing market, but the priced out generation are getting older: people in their 30s and 40s are three times more likely to be renters compared to twenty years ago.
Many take their frustration out on ‘NIMBYs’ who block local developments on spurious grounds. Meanwhile, a common refrain among grandparents is that the young need to cancel their Netflix subscriptions if they want to get on the housing ladder.
Several solutions have been offered to Britain’s housing crisis. ‘YIMBY’ activists propose radical planning reform to weaken the ability of local government to block developments and building on the green belt as a route to more housebuilding, jobs, and lower prices. A more orthodox socialist solution focuses on building social housing, regulating developments to mandate ‘affordable’ housing, and rent controls.
Both of these strands of thought offer glimpses of a solution but they contain fatal flaws. YIMBYs risk driving down standards. A state-centric approach runs up against the fact that building social housing on a large scale is eye-wateringly expensive and the post-Truss fiscal outlook is bleak. Rent controls, floated recently by Sadiq Khan in London, have proven to be a disaster for housing supply in Berlin.
If Labour is to tackle the housing crisis, it needs to tackle its root cause: the ability of profiteering landlords to fleece renters, which in turn makes affording a deposit nigh impossible. This will involve learning from both the YIMBYs and the statist left. Reform to limit the ability of local homeowners to veto developments and pull up the ladder on first-time buyers would allow the private sector to boost housing supply. A replenishment of the social housing stock would give tenants the option to opt out of the private sector completely if their landlord is unwilling to provide good quality housing at affordable prices.
In a developed society, quality housing should be a fact of life, not a commodity to be hoarded by a grey-haired rentier class. The combination of both more housing and higher standards would empower tenants and first-time buyers and end the housing crisis that divides British society today. But only a wide-ranging and pragmatic package of reforms at the heart of the next Labour manifesto can deliver it.
Labour should view housing with its eye on the future. The party dominates among young voters, but past complacency has resulted in electoral massacres in Scotland and the north of England as other parties have ruthlessly pursued once core Labour demographics. We were outflanked on the issue of housing in the 1950s by Harold MacMillan, leading to 13 years of Conservative rule. A failure to prioritise it today risks repeating history.
Many young Tories are realising the existential nature of housing and the youth vote for their party, but their solutions are dogmatically YIMBY - a bonfire of environmental and safety regulation that may lower prices but would incur dire human costs. To prevent this dystopian future, Labour must seize the initiative and deliver good-quality, affordable housing for all.
Joe Smallman is a recent graduate of the University of Cambridge and King's College London. He is currently Events Officer for the Young Fabians Communications Network and works in the charitable sector. You can follow him on Twitter here.