A couple weeks ago now I was fortunate enough to join an online event, run by the Young Fabians and Labour Housing Group, which featured an in-depth conversation with new Labour Shadow Housing Minister Thangam Debbonaire. Having had fairly limited interaction with her before I was pleased to find Thangam bright, engaging and full of ideas for the future of Labour’s policy on housing and homes.
Whilst the event ended up receiving a write-up in LabourList which provoked controversy over Thangam’s opposition to taking on the ‘Cancel the Rent’ policy that many activists have demanded as a response to the coronavirus outbreak, I was far more interested in what she had to say about owning rather than renting. I felt that the shadow minister touched on something particularly powerful when she said that the left ‘needed to be brave’ in making policy for, and understanding that ‘a great many people want to own their own homes’.
I felt this intervention was a particularly astute one to make because it sometimes feels like the debate we have around housing policy on the left too often ignores that innate desire that so many have, not just to be housed but to feel the sense of pride and control that comes from ownership. It seems that there is an underlying sense on the left that if only we could build enough socially rented housing and make it widely enough available that this might solve the nation’s housing issues at a stroke, however there is a good deal of evidence to the contrary. The desire to own a home of one’s own is deep rooted within the British national psyche. Whilst the Germans for instance are a nation of renters – with only 51.5% ownership rate, overall home ownership in England still stood at 64% as of last year, down off a peak of 71% in 2003 but largely unchanged since 2013-14.
Of course, the issue of access to the ‘housing ladder’ is an inherently generational one, as each new generation in turn needs to be given the assistance that is required in taking their first step. No post-war generation has been more let down in this regard than the people that have come to be known as ‘Generation Rent’. This is the term applied to millions of people aged between 25-40 who find themselves priced out of the housing market, with the average house price in England having risen 173% since 1997, with real incomes for young adults in the same time period having gone up only 19%.
Despite these challenges, the desire for ownership among this group remains high with Property Reporter stating in 2018 that almost half of 25-34-year olds not yet on the housing ladder wanted to be homeowners within the next 10 years. As a member of this generation myself, my sense of this issue was only further sharpened when I recently accepted an offer to work for Pocket Living, an SME developer which delivers affordable homes to first time buyers in London boroughs at a 20% discount. Their schemes have also received support from the Mayor’s office.
Researching them in preparation to take on the role I found it both heartening that they were providing an option for people of my generation to get on that housing ladder, however I was surprised that despite Pocket’s success they remain a fairly unique operator in serving the market, with successive governments having failed to look for solutions nationwide in the way that Sadiq Khan has in London.
In this document, produced to celebrate its 15th anniversary Pocket sets out 15 regulatory changes that its experience of delivery could be useful in improving the market for first time buyers:
These are just some suggestions from an organisation that has a track record of delivery in the area and there will doubtless be many more to come as Labour looks to set the programme on homes that it takes to the nation in 2024. What is certain though is that Labour cannot afford to fail to engage with the dreams and aspirations of voters in this area. There is perhaps a temptation on the left to suggest that getting into policy that promotes home ownership and strays from social renting is somehow a right-wing approach, however it is not remotely clear that both cannot be worked on hand in hand.
For too long, whether going back to Thatcher on Right to Buy or even in the current Government’s First Homes policy, Labour has surrendered ground to the right on the issue of home ownership. Thangam Debbonaire is correct, especially in light of the new challenges posed by fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, to say that Labour must ‘be brave’ in this area and build a policy prospectus that speaks to people’s desire not just to be housed, but to own a home and make it their own.