I am now well and truly sick of the housing crisis being described as a “bubble.” Housing price inflation is not just due to cheap credit. In the case of the UK housing market, house price inflation is largely due to a literal dearth of houses to live in. Mortgages are cheaper than ever and houses should be a depreciating asset; the older and more ‘used’ they are the cheaper they should be. New housing is so ugly, so mean in size, and so scarce that older houses are now “character properties” for sale at a huge premium. For some reason people seem to think that the housing market is immune to the laws of supply and demand. Government fiddles with interests rates all you want, introduce ridiculous schemes to subsidise credit like “Help-To-Buy,” and squeeze landlords until they pop, but that won’t solve a problem caused by twenty years worth of missing housing stock thanks to a piss poor planning framework. The government must ensure more houses are built, and a lot of them at that.
Here are the five main reasons why any government must remove all impediments to private house building now:
1. A lack of housing creates the perception that life is getting worse.
Middle class graduates like myself have been left wondering why they cannot afford a home in the modest neighbourhoods their parents could comfortably afford a home in. I’m securely employed and reaching the age where I should be buying a house but I look online at housing in my price range, in the neighbourhood in which my parents own a home in and the choice is painfully thin for miles around. Employed middle class people who would have never had to rely on social housing a generation ago are stuck in it, or worse, in their childhood bedrooms. More pertinently, the homeless, the most vulnerable in our society, risk being pushed further to the edges of our society by a lack of housing. By European standards the UK has a lot of social housing stock. The problem is that people who should not have to rely on it, do.
The perception that I am less well off than my parents is a powerful one. If people can’t even afford the same neighbourhoods they grew up in despite being better educated and employed than their parents, they will start asking questions like, “Why did I bother getting a very expensive degree?” This type of perception matters when it comes to how they vote. In every other sphere of life we are better off than our parents, but not when it comes to housing. Would young people be so in thrall with political “leaders” like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn if they perceived that their lives were getting better? I think not.
2. It’s not just communities of houses that are missing; it’s schools, hospitals and clinics, and transport systems that are missing too.
The chronic shortage of houses means the schools, health care facilities, and infrastructure which would have been built along with them don’t exist either. We have a shortage of primary school places because the schools that would have been build with new homes simply aren’t there. We have NHS hospitals and GP clinics which are struggling to cope with their work load. We also have commuter trains packed to dangerous capacities.
Something as simple as a lack of school places should be easy to solve, but twenty years of inaction on housing has seen a simple problem, like school places, become a crisis. Soon it will become a crisis in primary and secondary school places. It is now a struggle to get an appointment at my ordinary suburban GP clinic with the more articulate and pushy middle class people edging out the less able. It’s not fair on existing services to be serving communities that are becoming relentlessly denser and denser in their populations.
3. The housing crisis is killing off the Traditional Family.
You should be able to buy a family home in the suburbs on a single salary. Both my father and my grandfather bought houses when they already had a child and a housewife to support. Neither of them had degrees. On a single working class salary, my grandfather moved his family off a council estate and into a private home. It was not a particularly impressive home but my grandmother and her two children never wanted for food, clothes, or a roof over their heads. This acquisition of property is effectively what made my family middle class rather than working class. Had my grandfather paid rent all his working life, his widow (my grandmother now in her eighties) would be in a significantly worse position emotionally as well as financially. She would certainly not be sitting secure and comfortable in a chair by the French windows of a house she owns outright.
Single people who are securely employed should have no problem getting a mortgage and having a choice of houses to buy. House price inflation has meant that despite being more impressively educated and employed than their parents, individuals effectively need to be in a relationship and have another salary before getting on the property ladder. If getting a family home relies on two salaries, the option of staying at home with the kids has become a less realistic prospect depriving both women and men of choice. I wasn’t surprised to read this article in the Telegraph, however, emotionally uncomfortable it must be for feminists. Though it proves there are a great deal of women who deeply resent house price inflation as much as I do. Paying childcare fees to another adult – who is only superficially interested in your child – is not a prospect many women look forward to.
4. Divorce and bereavement have been made even worse.
Watching marriages fall apart is excruciating at the best of times. Unfortunately with the added burden of housing costs we are now seeing the rise of the ‘older renter’. Being forced to split the family home in a divorce at the wrong age now means two people never owning a home of their own again. Houses are just too expensive now. If you’re unlucky enough to lose your partner by death or divorce when you have young children, not being able to afford the mortgage on a single salary means the kids lose a garden to play in as the family gets shunted back into a much smaller rented apartment.
5. People are stuck on the wrong rung of the housing ladder.
People don’t just move up the housing ladder, they move down too. My mother has been keen on buying a bungalow for some time now. Despite being surrounded by them, they never come up for sale unless someone dies. Due to the lack of bungalows, not only is my mother less appropriately housed than she should be, but there’s a young couple somewhere missing out on a modest family home because of lack of choice further along the housing ladder. About ten years ago bungalows became incredibly unfashionable, however, fashion isn’t the most important factor if you can’t comfortably climb stairs and hovering a large house tires you out for the rest of the day. Starter homes are not the only houses that need to be built. Homes at every level, from bungalows, to affordable terraces, to luxury flats, must be built to appropriately house the population.
Championing house building must be a priority for a Conservative government. Or government for that matter. Affordable private housing protects the Traditional Family, it protects children, it protects the old, it protects services and social housing from being overburdened; it protects the bereaved and divorced, and it protects the vulnerable who have been rendered homeless by twenty years of bad housing policy. I remain flabbergasted that the issue is still not being taken seriously enough. Rip up the planning framework that is preventing new private housing being built, and build, build, build! The human cost is just too great.
For Conservatives For Liberty, August 2016.