Britain has had a housing issue over a period of decades which has morphed into a full blown housing crisis. So it is worth asking the question: just how do the leading political parties aim to solve the housing crisis, an issue which has been extensively discussed in the media and which directly affects people´s quality of live? This question focuses mainly on Britain, though the German situation is also touched upon.
Is there a housing crisis?
In Britain, no one seriously questions the fact that there is not only a real housing crisis in Britain, but that it is the worst it has been in a generation. In fact the worst situation in a generation does not really capture the issue since the current levels of house building in Britain are actually the lowest in peacetime since the 1920s. Unlike frequent hints and suggestions to the contrary, this is not first and foremost due to an increase in migration from the European Union (EU), which started in 2004, peaked in 2009 and been running at lower levels since. This is not to suggest that net positive annual migration does not impact on housing demand and thus ultimately on house prices. It is to argue that a full-blown housing crisis has taken decades to reach the current level, rather than being a consequence of 11 years of migration from the new accession and other EU countries. Rather, it is the direct consequence of neglect by the leading political parties over generations.
Demand for housing is not simply about migration, it is also about the overall population growth, as well as other factors such as regional migratory patterns, trend towards smaller households and various many other factors. To argue, as the media, the politicians and many ordinary people increasingly have, that the current housing crisis is due to migration in general and/or so-called „uncontrolled“ EU migration in particular is quite simply pie in the sky.
The other key factor, of course, is supply of housing and here, we see the real problem which has resulted in the current housing crisis. Unlike Germany, where demand and supply are responsive to one another (albeit it with a time lag that is caused by investors, the construction industry and the planning system taking time to react to the changing circumstances), the same does not apply to Britain and has not done so for decades. Quite simply not enough housing is constructed to meet demand. At its core, this is fundamentally the cause of the housing crisis in Britain, though there are numerous factors which deliver this unsatisfactory outcome.
Of course, one could discuss the effects of certain policies which have affected the housing policy dynamic, the most important one being the Right-to-Buy policy, which since 1980 has resulted in 1,5 million homes being sold at discount. However, this does not affect demand and supply situation. People still need to live somewhere, regardless of whether a former council owned property is now owned by the last former tenant or not.
What are the solutions to the British housing crisis?
It is safe to say that one of the two leading parties is likely to lead whichever government comes into power after 07 May 2015. So it is worth asking the question of what they are proposing in their election manifestos to solve this major social and economic ill which affects the younger generations in particular (but not only). These are, of course, also the ones which either do not vote or tend to vote proportionately less than their parents´ and grandparents´ generation.
The answer in terms of what they are proposing is, sadly but perhaps predictably, not that much.
- Labour Party: promises that 200,000 houses will be built annually by 2020, meaning that the numbers will be a lot lower until then. Given that annual construction is currently running at half that number, this is a realistic target but there is little detail on how this will actually be achieved, let alone ensuring that such housing is affordable.
- Conservative Party: the supply of housing is not uppermost in the manifesto, since the emphasis is on privatising whatever social housing is left, namely the stock that is used by 1.3 million families living in housing associations. There will also be a requirement for local authorities to sell the most valuable properties from what remains of their housing stock (210,000 or 5%). The sales will be reinvested in new housing supposedly resulting in a larger number of new houses built, compared with those sold. The plan is to create 200,000 Starter Homes over the course of the next five years, which will be sold at a 20% discount to for first time buyers under the age of 40.
Is the end of the housing crisis in sight?
Any way you view the election promises of the two leading parties, the numbers simply do not add up. Even if it were possible to achieve the targets set by 2020, which is in itself doubtful (for example, the Conservative manifesto more or less rules out construction of Green Belt land and the Labour manifesto does not even mention it, referring only to the Lyons Review), neither party is seriously promoting serious, long-term solutions to the housing crisis. Housing is first and foremost a numbers game; the supply has to exceed demand and it needs to be maintained over decades in order to deliver not only sufficient, affordable homes, but also an increase in standards and quality over time.
The proposed solutions are not going to do much for the large numbers of people, especially those under the age of 35, who are currently having to live with their parents or paying high rents for low quality private rented housing. The proposed solutions represent yet another missed opportunity to think long-term and prioritise investment in what is a basic human necessity, as well as something which greatly influences our quality of life. The contrast with other European countries, such as Germany, could not be greater as illustrated in a previous post comparing the German and British housing systems.
Ricardo Pinto, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU