So much of housing comes down to location (location, location etc). So Ed Miliband’s choice of venue for his announcement yesterday caught the eye.
Stevenage was an interesting choice for two reasons: firstly, it’s a ‘new town’– one of the first delivered in a post-war period when the scale of our house building ambitions were significantly grander than they have been in recent decades. But secondly, Stevenage is also a key marginal constituency: exactly the sort of south-eastern seat Labour need to win if they are to get a majority in 2015.
This is the clearest signal yet that the Labour party is beginning to see the political opportunity that lies in housing, and the need for clear and popular policies to address our housing crisis. It’s no coincidence that Ed Miliband speaks of housing’s ‘broken market’ – the same language he used in his party conference speech to talk about energy. In housing, he sees an issue at the forefront of people’s minds, and one where they are looking to politicians to take bold action in order to tackle the problems being stored up for their children.
You might justifiably ask what’s taken him so long. The housing crisis has been worsening for a long time – and it certainly didn’t improve enough under the last Government. So why is the Labour leader – and figures from across the political spectrum, like Nick Boles and Boris Johnson – starting to find housing so politically appealing?
Well, the answer partly lies in places like Stevenage itself. A young working family on the average income in Stevenage faces over 14 years of saving before they can afford a home of their own; just 9% of homes on the private market in the area are affordable to them. Between 2001 and 2011, home ownership with a mortgage declined in Stevenage from 45% of households to 37% – while private renting more than doubled, from 5% to 11%.
This is a state of affairs mirrored across the country, and accentuated in the kind of seats that will decide the election. It’s those kind of voters that are going to decide the outcome of the next election. So when they speak, politicians tend to listen.
As the graphic below from Populus shows, those voters choose ‘better prospects for [my children] owning their own home’ above any other single issue when asked what would make them feel better about their family’s future (a feeling even more acute among swing voters). And it’s why 2 in 3 people want to see house prices stay the same or even fall, compared to just 1 in 3 who want them to rise. That’s a real shift from times gone by.
Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday – coming less than two weeks after George Osborne said that “if we want more people to own a home, we’re going to have to build more homes” – shows that the message is getting through.
In short, once upon a time pledging to build more homes was a vote loser – now it’s a vote winner. Political interventions like Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday, the Chancellor’s comments in his Autumn Statement and Boris Johnson’s recently published Housing Strategy demonstrates that the big political players are starting to realise this and want to make sure affected votes are won for their side.
That said, there’s still a long way to go – no one’s announced anything game-changing yet, and as a result no single party has a demonstrable ‘lead’ when it comes to housing. But here’s hoping today’s speech was the first play in a bidding war in the run up to the election, where the desperate need for more homes finally gets the prominence it deserves.