Cover Story: Game of Homes

Has housing already lost the election?

The 2015 general election is imminent and it will decide the fate of millions struggling to secure a decent home they can afford, but as the politicians compete for votes can our aspiration to solve the housing crisis trump their aspiration for power?

By Mark Cantrell

First published in the April/May 2015 edition of Housing magazine

ASPIRATION would be a fine thing, if it weren’t so tragic, but in a sense this is very much what the coming election is all about. The question is whose hopes and dreams will be sacrificed in the battle to seize control of Parliament – and at what cost to Britain’s social and economic fabric?

As we know, a lot of people aspire to own their home, but the homeownership dream is dying; a sizeable chunk of people aspire to find a secure, stable home in the social sector, but it’s been hacked to the bone; the private rented sector has enjoyed phenomenal growth, mopping up the refugees from these crumbling tenures, but it’s become an expensive and insecure place, built on the back of people who really – desperately – aspire to be anywhere but here.

Meanwhile, David Cameron aspires to lead the next government, a true-blue Tory administration purged of the Liberal Democrat element that helped him secure power back in 2010. Labour’s Ed Miliband, naturally, wants to give Cameron the boot and take up residence in Number 10 himself. As for the LibDems, well, presumably they aspire to avoid being cast into electoral oblivion.

And then we have the wildcards – the Green Party, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), Plaid Cymru, even UKIP – looking to play ‘kingmaker’, or at least matchmaker, in the formation of a new coalition government.

Never before have parties of the electoral fringes (with apologies to the SNP, which is of course a major player in Scotland) enjoyed such potential to shape the UK’s political landscape. Well, they might want to learn a lesson or two from the LibDems; the party that paved the way for the UK’s venture into the unfamiliar territory of coalition. Not least, on 8 May they might wake up to learn the risks of venturing into government partnership with parties not quite in alignment with their own claimed values and policies.

Nick Clegg puts a brave face on it these days, but the truth is his party supped of a poisoned chalice when it made the deal that led them out of the backbench wilderness and into government office. It’s certainly been historic – the first true coalition, and a stable one at that, and the first time Liberals have held offices of state since the Second World War. It seemed, at long last, that the LibDems had arrived. And they may well pay a heavy price for that fleeting period of governmental glory.

Politics, like life, is frequently unfair – as Margaret Thatcher once noted – and rightly or wrongly, Clegg and his party compadres have stirred a stew of anger over the last five years. The party bosses claim they’ve been a moderating influence on their Conservative colleagues, but many who invested their vote in 2010 have come to see the party as an enabler of right wing excess. There is a sense of betrayal, for which 7 May offers the chance of payback. Clegg looks set to endure his Portillo moment. And he may not be alone.

Elections and electorates can be fickle beasts, of course. Clegg may survive, but it is likely that the LibDems will – if not face outright oblivion – be sent packing to the backbenches from whence they came. The fate of the LibDems, however, is neither here nor there. They’ve shot their bolt. Now it’s somebody else’s turn.

Pundits have offered up 2015 as the most unpredictable general election for a generation or more. The uncertainty extends beyond the question of the likely winner – Conservative or Labour – but whether either of them will emerge victorious at all. There’s a real expectation of a hung parliament, which will unleash a scramble to cut to a deal with one or more of the minority parties in an effort to clinch the prime ministerial crown.

Britain’s political policy landscape is up for grabs in more ways than one. Little wonder, then, that the smaller players smell blood – all of a sudden they matter a great deal. Potentially, they provide the means to bolster the status quo, or provide leverage to radically shift the nation’s future.

Either way, regardless of the manifesto commitments the respective parties publish, any negotiations to secure a coalition government will mean that we the electorate can’t be entirely sure what it is we’re voting for. Remember those disgruntled LibDem voters? Of course, there’s also a chance that the electorate could play the joker in the pack and give either Labour or Tory factions a workable majority. Stranger things have happened.

But these aren’t the only factions in play this coming election. Housing has emerged as a major issue, acknowledged by the political parties to varying degrees; millions of people affected by the housing crisis will be looking to them for redress. Indeed, a number of campaigns and civil society organisations are looking to mobilise this constituency – Homes for Britain, SHOUT, Generation Rent, and others – in an effort to win the election for housing.

There’s a palpable sense that this is a make-or-break election for the housing world – especially the social variety. Homes for Britain is demanding that the next government devise a plan to resolve the housing crisis within a generation – and publish its plan in the first year of the next Parliament – while SHOUT calls for at least 100,000 new social housing a year. The generally accepted figure for the number of homes we need to build a year is 240,000, covering all tenures, so how have the political players answered this call thus far?

Election manifestos are yet to be published (at the time of writing, Parliament has only just been dissolved), but it’s not as if the political parties haven’t been dropping less-than-subtle hints.

On the whole, the offerings are somewhat underwhelming, perhaps even a source of foreboding for those at the sharp end of the housing crisis. David Cameron set out a private market vision during a speech in Colchester, heavily focused on subsidising home ownership, a degree of regulation for private renting, planning reform, and a package more or less familiar from the last five years. For frustrated first-time buyers he dangled the small carrot of 200,000 cut-price so-called Starter Homes. It’s hardly an all out assault on the housing crisis.

Social housing evidently barely figures in Conservative thinking. Although, the party has raised the prospect of a ‘right to move’ for tenants and reiterated its commitment to Right-to-Buy. Indeed, Cameron has raised the possibility of extending the policy to housing associations. Given the pressure the National Housing Federation and its member landlords have applied in pursuit of a solution to the crisis, it is difficult not to interpret Cameron’s proposal as a deliberate slap in the face, not to mention a piece of vote-catching populism.

Labour, meanwhile, is relying heavily on the Lyons Review to provide its housing offer. Chief among this is the target to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2020. All told, it’s a rather more mixed tenure offer than the Tories are making, with measures to support first-time buyers, give councils greater scope to build homes, and introduce measures to increase competition in the housebuilding market.

Pertinently, for those eager to see a concerted effort to tackle the housing crisis, Labour has said it will make it a national priority. In office, if it wins, it will set up a new cross-government taskforce to drive a co-ordinated approach to increasing the supply of housing.

All told, Labour has claimed it will boost the supply of affordable housing. Great stuff, no doubt, but as we are learning to our cost, ‘affordable’ isn’t always so.

The Greens proved far less coy on the matter of affordability; the party has declared an intention to build social housing. Yes, that’s right – full-blown social housing and 500,000 of them by 2020. That’s a clear commitment, lifted right out of SHOUT’s manifesto, but if it wants to act on this promise it’ll need to play some serious hardball around the negotiating table in the event of a hung parliament, if it secures a presence that merits it being a coalition power-broker, of course.

There’s a lot to mull over; far more than can be condensed into these pages, but from the perspective of the housing world, it’s all about finding a way to meld the aspiration for a decent home – whatever the tenure – with the aspiration for political office of those standing for election. So, there’s a lot riding on the outcome.

Predictions are dangerous in any election, all the more so in this uncertain contest. But on past record, and the offerings currently laid before us, it seems safe to say that whoever wins the election the biggest loser looks set to be social housing – and with it, the scope for a genuine, sustainable solution to the housing crisis.

Right now, the politicians want our votes; that offers a chance, however slim, to bend them to our will. But they are a notoriously slippery breed when it comes to commitments. It’s when we, the electorate, have served our purpose that the real fight to force a solution to the housing crisis begins. Strangely, we may actually need another hung parliament to break the deadlock between those two old, entrenched power-blocs that are Conservative and Labour. A new coalition might be the answer to our prayers – or our waking nightmare.

Until then, all we can do is hold to our aspiration. Vote wisely. And good luck.

This article first appeared as the cover story for the April/May 2015 print edition of Housing magazine. It subsequently appeared on the Housing Excellence website, 27 April 2015

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