How radical is the Conservative shift on housing policy?
Theresa May appears to be moving Conservative housing policy away from the Thatcherite vision of a home-owning democracy towards a position which gives greater recognition of, and security for, renters, according to a new white paper. But how radical is this supposed ‘shift’ in policy and what does it really represent?
Margaret Thatcher’s ‘property-owning democracy’ policy was based on a desire to end state involvement in the economy, increase home ownership and, in her eyes, encourage ‘aspiration’ – the pitch to voters was that if you worked hard you could buy your own home. It hinged on selling off council houses to tenants at extremely low prices – the social housing stock was never replaced. Many elements of the current crisis can be traced back to this policy which ignored the rights of renters to ‘promote aspiration’ and was followed by every Tory leader since including David Cameron.
May’s proposals are underpinned by a recognition that home ownership is out of reach for millions of people who are forced to live in rented accommodation. It is an admission that leaving the sector to market forces has resulted in a major crisis. The white paper therefore proposes cracking down on rogue landlords, ensuring developers offer a quota of new homes for ‘affordable rent’ and encouraging landlords to offer more secure tenancies for families.
How radical is this policy shift? The rhetoric – and it is important to note that it is, at least for now, nothing more than unsupported rhetoric – signifies a sorely needed shift towards the rights of tenants which have been overlooked in favour of protecting the rights of landlords for too long. But the proposed changes do not go nearly far enough.
‘Incentivising’ landlords to provide families with three-year tenancies might give a select number of renting families a degree of security. But what if the landlord does not feel sufficiently incentivised? What if you are a renter without children? These questions only begin to scratch the surface in terms of the inadequacy of the proposals. The crux of the problem remains the failure to build enough homes.
The white paper is a little surprising considering the fact that over the past few years similar suggestions by the Labour Party have been met with scorn from Conservatives and right-wing media outlets. A question we must ask is why now? Tackling rogue landlords should be a given. Considering it has taken seven years for the Conservative Government to decide to deal with landlords who let properties which are damp, overcrowded or unsafe it is unsurprising that millions will wait to judge on actions not words.
What does the white paper really represent? It is an admission that this Government is not going to address properly the core issue: not enough houses are being built. May, just like Thatcher and all her successors, is ideologically opposed to building social housing.
When you consider the fact the Government spends £25 billion per year on housing benefit, much of which goes to landlords to counter soaring rents and low wages, it is a rather questionable dogma. Government failure when it comes to building homes, in large part driven by opposition to social housing, is the core issue behind why so many are trapped in rented accommodation, stuck in poor and unsafe conditions and have no security.
Offering incentives in the hope that smaller developers will make up the shortfall and allowing councils to reduce the time developers can pause between gaining planning permission and building – a tactic deployed to keep supply low and demand high and therefore increase the value of developments – simply does not cut it.
Surely the right of someone who aspires and works hard to buy their first home is at least equal to the right of a homeowner to buy a second or third home, which they will then let to the aspiring first-time buyer, increasing their own wealth at the expense of their tenant(s).
The current system plays into the hands of the haves and against the have-nots. Houses have become something to make money from, not to live in, and these proposals – and they are just proposals – fail to address the fundamental problems.
It is a strange paradox when Conservatives use rhetoric suggesting they believe in the rights of those who aspire (to own property) but, in reality, have consistently pursued policies which protect the rights of those who already own homes, whose parents own homes, who let second and third homes while ignoring the rights of others to get their feet on the property ladder.
A crisis requires a truly radical solution. Recognising there is a crisis but simply accepting it as the status quo and tinkering around the edges to alleviate some of the problems for some people is not good enough. Years of failure and inaction cannot be righted by token gestures. Generation rent deserves more.