Guest blog: Ben Page reflects on housing as an electoral issue

There are local and mayoral elections across the United Kingdom today, so we are delighted to have a timely guest blog from the esteemed pollster Ben Page, Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI, writing about the challenges and paradoxes of housing as a personal and political issue. Over the coming weeks we’ll be reflecting on how housing has faired in the elections where Shelter has been seeking to get housing on the political agenda. But for now, over to the expert!

Housing is an interesting issue for pollsters. Few mention it spontaneously as a key issue. It is certainly not key to local elections – and in London for example, 47% of the electorate don’t know which Mayoral candidate might have the best policies on the issue.

But ask people about a list of issues and it hurtles upwards as a problem. With good reason. The number of people who own their own homes has plateaued and is falling – despite most people in EVERY tenure wanting to own their own home. Price volatility and faltering confidence are now posing real challenges for our ‘property-owning democracy’ and for successive governments keen to harness public aspirations and build social mobility.

Generation Rent’ is the one most young people now belong to – 59% of renters believe that they will never be able to afford to buy; rents are rising too. Over a fifth of 18 to 44-year olds without children admit they are delaying starting a family because of a lack of affordable housing and, with implications for the economy, an estimated 5.6 million people are unable to move for work because of housing costs, making Britain less competitive and flexible as a place to do business.

David Cameron says housing is ‘not just about the economy, it’s also about people’s hopes and dreams…You always remember that moment, when you get that key and walk into your first flat…It’s a moment I want everyone in this country to have.’ No pressure, then, as local government tries to help realise people’s dreams.

The new National Planning Policy Framework in theory gives communities greater influence, and responsibility, for what happens where. But public opinion about building new homes is VERY conditional on minimising disruption, protecting locals and providing adequate infrastructure. The public will go along with it, but want a whole load of guarantees over and above those often offered.

Without this, it is unlikely we will get anywhere near the sorts of volumes that are needed. Local projects all require very careful attention to local sentiment and real clarity about the benefits of building and how perceived and actual adverse impacts are going to be mitigated. More often than not councils have failed in this to date, and partly for that reason, as well as economic gloom, few new homes will be on the list of promises of whoever does well this week.

Sadly, this is one of those issues where there does not appear to be any happy ending anytime soon – and certainly not due to any election outcome in the UK. For organisations like Shelter, the challenge is to re-frame and re-articulate housing as the kind of mass issue that gets high profile coverage in an election campaign. And that is no mean feat.