Last month Matt Singh crunched data to show that the UK ‘youthquake’ was more a ‘rentquake’ because private renters more than any other group surged to vote Labour at last year’s general election. Now, the latest Ipsos MORI Issues Index – the longest running barometer of public concern – has housing on 22%, below only September and October 1974 among 408 monthly measures.
True, housing is well below the NHS and Brexit which are very much top of mind. This is evident in any focus group right now; in the past few weeks I have found people despairing for the NHS and impatient for an end to uncertainty about Brexit. But housing is never very far behind in the conversation and, nowadays, it seems easier to find a climate change denier than someone who disputes our nation’s housing prospects are worse than awful.
Little wonder then that the Prime Minister used a keynote speech in March to address housing. This was an attempt to talk about something other than Brexit, but also an issue very much worrying the nation. She described the centrality of housing to social mobility and a core part of the ‘British dream’ while her colleagues Sajid Javid and Dominic Raab have talked about a “housing revolution” and a Government “restless” to succeed.
But the Conservatives appear hamstrung, finding it hard to navigate three inter-related dilemmas:
Protect/progress. Most people know they don’t know what the Green Belt is but think it sounds like something worth protecting. They also wildly over-estimate how much of Britain is densely built-up – the mean guess is 47%.
But we have found ‘nimby’ and ‘yimby’ sentiment to be less prevalent than ‘maybe’ to new housing. That nimbyism is on the back foot is evident in these not untypical disclaimers in group discussions – “I’m not nimby but…”, “I’m not against change but…” – but it shouldn’t be written off.
Interventionist/devolutionist. The Conservatives abolished top-down regional planning in favour of something more locally-led but this is not delivering enough homes. Javid is threatening to “breath down the neck” of councils failing to build, but the Tories will want to keep the Shires on side. Meanwhile the public tend to trust local government more than Whitehall on housing which doesn’t auger well for Planning Inspectors being empowered to ‘call in’ Local Plans and procrastination.
State/private. The British aspire to own property rather than rent it – 84% of Britons would choose to be an owner-occupier in five years’ time if they could – but they also want more social housing and for access to extend beyond the most ‘needy’. There is an appetite for a reversal of the decades-old residualisation of social housing.
Housing is now a top three issue among middle-aged working class voters and we’ve found widespread support for Government borrowing to build. But housing is seen as a market and voters don’t yet lay blame at the Government’s door in the same way they do with other policy areas.
While it is hard to make the case that housing is an outright vote-winner, it really does matter in London and the capital will be a key electoral battleground in a few short weeks. Labour is not immune from its own problems on housing but, on this issue, seems a bit more comfortable in its own skin.
The Conservatives need to be bold on housing; “restless” and “revolutionary”.