At Shelter we have long argued that housebuilding can be a vote winner.
We know from our campaigns that engaging the public in the problem isn’t too difficult – almost universally, they are worried about where their kids are going to live.
But when it comes to solutions, one of the things that holds housing back among political types is the belief that housebuilding itself isn’t, well, very sexy. In that hideous Westminster jargon, it isn’t much of a ‘retail offer’. As we’ve discussed before, this calculation is partly what spawned Help to Buy.
On the one hand, this is dubious. A clear majority of voters accept housebuilding as necessary for solving the housing crisis, and are sceptical of sticking-plaster solutions. That’s why Help to Buy has failed to capture public imagination.
But to be fair, this view does have a grain of truth in it. Big numbers alone (“A MILLION new homes over 5 years”, “A huge housebuilding programme and planning reform”) might be the right answer but don’t necessarily have the populist punch of, say, a promise to freeze energy bills or cut fuel duty, for instance.
Part of the problem is there is no silver bullet solution; the reasons for the shortage are ‘large and contain multitudes’, as we make clear. Structural change is needed and there is no substitute for that nitty-gritty for any party wishing to solve the problem and get credit for it.
That doesn’t mean, though, that a punchy, popular housebuilding policy isn’t also possible.
To prove this, we’ve polled some. In doing so we set ourselves a few basic criteria. As well as being popular, any solution has to (a) get more affordable homes built and (b) genuinely help those on low incomes as well as those in the middle.
We also know from other’s research that the vast majority of the public share a few common perceptions on solutions, including that they should offer the chance to young people who work and save to have some degree of ownership over their home.*
So using all this as a guide, we asked Populus to poll six possible housebuilding policies. We tested not only their support in principle, but their perceived credibility. We then asked respondents to pick their favourite, and whether they would still support that policy even if it meant more homes being built in their local area. We also put the government’s Help to Buy scheme in to the mix of options, to see how it fared.
The full results are here, but here’s a summary:
1. Rent to Buy. “Help first-time buyers avoid throwing dead money at expensive rents by building new quality homes where every rent payment goes towards owning the house”
Overall this was the most popular option we tested, with 75% net support and nearly a quarter of people picking it as their favourite. Most also said it was feasible. In policy terms, it could build on the existing ‘Gentoo Genie’ product – though it would need to be reformed to work better for those on low incomes.
2. Part buy part-rent homes. “Build a new generation of good quality ‘part-buy, part-rent’ homes. People would buy a stake in a home with a mortgage and pay an affordable rent on the remaining share. They would have the option to scale up their ownership share if their salary increases.”
This was also popular (65%), notably among Conservative voters. It was also felt to be the most credible offer – probably because it is already fairly well known, based as it is on existing shared ownership. It is something we have argued for before. However, as we noted at the time, as a product it is not without baggage and would need to be improved (issues with maintenance fees, the need to make it more affordable etc).
3. ‘New Homes Deal’. “Let young families put down roots by giving local people the chance to buy new homes built in their area before landlords or foreign investors”
Again, this performed well (78%) – especially among UKIP voters. In policy terms, however, this would be the most challenging option – it is fraught with complexity and may not get more homes built on its own. But there’s no doubting its popularity.
4. Zero deposit homes. “Remove the need for high deposits by building quality new homes that first-time buyers can buy without a deposit”
With deposits perceived as a big barrier to young people getting on the ladder, this had a good level of support (65%). However, it struggled for credibility compared to other options – it was seen as the least credible of our six.
5. New council homes with the option of Right to Buy. “Help local families onto the ladder by building a new generation of quality council homes with a right to buy”
This was popular (64%), though less universally than other options – only 12% chose it as their favourite. It was, though, seen as highly credible. It could also be easily delivered through the Affordable Homes Programme.
6. Home-buyers discount. “Lower the cost of getting on the housing ladder through building homes and selling them to first time-buyers at a discount, which they would pass on when they come to sell”
This did less well than other options, mainly because it was seen as less credible – but had a good level of support in principle (65%). For more policy detail, see our blog here.
As you can see below, all of these outperformed ‘Help to Buy’ (“the government giving banks guarantees to encourage them to offer people 95% mortgages“; YouGov’s definition) – which came last on every metric we tested it against.
And all of them also broadly sustained support even when respondents were told it would mean more homes in their area.
Again, it’s worth saying there is no silver bullet to the housing crisis. We need more of all kinds of homes – and as our forthcoming policy briefing on tenure mix will make clear, this includes a sizable portion of social rented homes. But in this context there is also scope to expand and improve emerging products like shared ownership and Rent to Buy, to make them work for people on low and middle incomes. This would get more homes built, help those on low and middle incomes and should prove popular, helping to win consent for new house building.
Rather than endless tweaks to the planning system or yet another mortgage scheme, a proper ‘retail offer’ on housebuilding should and can be based on a credible offer to ordinary households that they and their children will be able to get a decent and secure home that they can afford.
If you would like to know more about our research in this area, do drop me an e-mail at Steve_Akehurst@shelter.org.uk
(* It’s worth nothing here that Shelter is tenure neutral. We’ll support any tenure that can provide safe, secure and affordable homes. Our focus here on aspects of ownership is because all the evidence tells us that, rightly or wrongly, this is what most of the public demand from housing.)