Voters face stark choice to fix UK’s housing crisis

Britain’s housing crisis was on full view at a general election hustings in London last week. Will, from Exmoor in south-west England, said he was living with his parents at the age of 29 because national park building restrictions and second homeowners had priced him out of the market. Sarah, a multiple sclerosis sufferer, described cockroaches, 11pm curfews and water pouring through the ceiling in the temporary accommodation she shared with her teenage son.

Their stories, and many others, held few surprises for the politicians taking questions. “I have cases like yours to deal with all the time,” Sian Berry, the Green party’s co-leader, told Sarah. Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrats housing spokesman, said that benefits payments would not cover rent for the cheapest one-bed flat advertised in his constituency.

With young people increasingly unable to aspire to home ownership, and millions still shuttling from one rented property to another even after having children, housing is one of the top priorities for many UK voters.

Although house construction has increased in recent years, it still falls short of government targets and little more than a quarter built last year meet even a broad definition of “affordable”. The proportion classed as social housing, with the cheapest rents, is near historic lows.

Column chart of Permanent dwellings completed in England ('000s) showing  For more than four decades the private sector has built the majority of new homes

The issue has received little attention in an election campaign dominated by Brexit and the National Health Service.

Voters are being offered a stark choice, between traditional Conservative support for home ownership and a Labour pledge of a massive government programme to build social housing. The Liberal Democrats also focus on building social housing, although with a lower level of ambition. The question is whether any party can deliver on these promises.

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All the main parties plan a big push to build more affordable homes.

The Conservatives have maintained their target of building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s. However, their concrete promise of “at least a million more homes” over the next parliament is more modest — implying a slower rate of building than that seen during the past year — and largely reliant on the private sector. It includes all tenures. Former prime minister Theresa May’s pledge of a “new generation of council homes” has been dropped.

Boris Johnson, her successor, has instead promised to restore the Conservatives’ traditional reputation as “the party of home ownership. The party’s manifesto includes measures to encourage a new market in long-term fixed rate mortgages; allow councils to use developers’ contributions to fund big discounts for local first time buyers; and extend Help to Buy, a scheme aimed at assisting those who might not otherwise be able to afford to buy but has been widely criticised for inflating prices without adding to the supply of affordable homes.

An advertisement for the U.K. Government's new "Help to Buy" scheme sits outside a row of new residential homes at a Bellway Plc real estate site in Northampton, U.K., on Thursday, Oct 10, 2013.
Critics of the Conservatives Help to Buy scheme claim it has inflated prices while failing to add to the supply of affordable homes © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Industry experts are sceptical these schemes will work. There has been little demand so far for 10-year fixed rate mortgages and Neal Hudson, an independent housing market analyst, said that, while the scheme for discounted homes “looks brilliant on a piece of paper”, it could be derailed by technical difficulties over valuation and resale.

Labour’s proposals are more radical, with shadow minister John Healey promising a “housing revolution”. The opposition party would embark on a state-led building programme on a scale not seen for 70 years. The public sector would deliver 150,000 homes a year by 2025, two-thirds of them built by councils for social rent with £75bn of investment — funded by borrowing — from central government.

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The party would also create an English sovereign land trust, with powers to buy land more cheaply for low-cost home construction; end the right for council tenants to buy their properties; and help local authorities buy back properties from private landlords.

Again, the main doubt is delivery: whether councils can rapidly ramp up their building programmes without crowding out the private sector. Hansen Lu, at the consultancy Capital Economics, described Labour’s policy as a “wild card”, arguing that if implemented well, it could achieve its aims with little collateral damage to the private sector — but, if poorly designed, the policies could end up doing more harm than good.

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One area in which all parties have pulled their punches is property taxation. Labour would introduce new levies on holiday homes and empty properties and the Conservatives are proposing a stamp duty surcharge on non-resident buyers. But more radical proposals previously floated by Labour, for example replacing council tax with a tax on property values, have not materialised.

There is one area of cross-party consensus: providing more security for the millions with little hope of reaching even the first rung of the property ladder. All parties have proposals to end “no fault” evictions by private landlords.

The Conservatives plan to introduce “lifetime deposits” that could move with renters between tenancies. Labour has more controversial plans for rent controls — intended to protect tenants from arbitrary rent rises, but a potential deterrent to landlords investing in the upkeep of their properties.

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Lindsay Judge, an analyst at the Resolution Foundation think-tank, said the biggest concern — over and above the lack of realism in both parties’ house building plans — was the potential impact of the schism between the major parties’ priorities.

“Housing promises usually take years to deliver in full, and the effects of big policy shifts are often felt decades down the line,” she wrote in a recent analysis. “There is a risk of policy flip-flops for years to come, something which is unlikely to help the many families for whom housing is a serious living standards challenge.”



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