Comment: We need to be honest about the housing crisis
By Tim Farron MP
I had to re-read a seemingly innocuous quote in City AM the other day. Martin Totty, speaking on behalf of HomeLet, said: "Despite the housing market slowing, high prices meant many people would be priced out of buying, which was positive news for landlords. Rents may not continue to grow at the pace seen over the past year, but the outlook remains attractive for landlords."
Which part counts as good news? You might think that the answer to that question is obvious – it depends on your position. Homeowners, sellers and renters: bad news. Landlords and wannabe buyers: good news. But I don't think this simplistic analysis is accurate. I think the average homeowner is more concerned by astronomically rising prices than our typical assumptions and our politics give them credit for.
As John Donne famously wrote, "no man is an island". We are not economic units whose only concern is measured in statistics. Homeowners have children who are priced out of the market. The number of 'children' (aged 20–34) living with their parents has risen by 25% since 1996. Two-thirds of first-time buyers get help from their parents to buy a home – that's double the level five years ago. Many homeowners also have parents who are growing old, whose needs are increasing. I've heard this generation described as the sandwich generation – balancing work, care and supporting their children.
A kneejerk reaction by a politician might be to decide 'well, we have a sandwich generation, so let's target policies specifically at them. They are a market, a voter pool and all we need to do is pitch our offer to them.' Result = election won, then five years to sort the specific problems of this sandwich generation. But generations within our society don't live in isolation. What affects one generation will come back to bite another. No wonder people are disillusioned with our politics when it reduces problems and proposes solutions which have little past evidence of success.
The key issue in housing isn't that first-time buyers can't get on the ladder, nor that rents are too high. 'Help to Buy' isn't the cure-all to our ills and whilst a rent cap might help renters in the short run, in the long run it will only disappoint. The politicians who propose these short-term measures will also disappoint, unless they have a more thorough approach. Unless we aim to end the housing crisis in its entirety, instead of just tinkering at the edges, we are just short-changing people for short-term electoral gain.
I got involved in politics to represent people's concerns and to try to tackle the problems that they face. This requires fair representation of the problem itself, as well as the people affected by it (whether directly or indirectly). I didn't come into politics to dodge the problems we face by appearing to solve them in order to distract from the most important issues.
At the next election Labour will try to appeal to 'Generation Rent'. The Conservatives will try to be the party of homeownership. But neither shows the honesty or ambition needed to restore people's faith in the ability of politicians to actually solve crises. Two hundred thousand homes is not enough to fill a one-million home backlog that Labour brewed in 13 years of government. The Conservatives continue to help a small proportion of the next cohort of homeowners on to the ladder, at the expense of the generation below.
That's why the Lib Dems will take the long-term, ambitious and holistic approach needed to solve this crisis. We need to get up to building 300,000 homes a year. We need new communities of all sizes, a change in attitude that sees councils and housing associations being set free to build and more powers to secure cheaper land to build better quality communities than in the past. Anything less than this will sell the public short – if our voters want us to end the housing crisis, then we must be honest about what is required, and ambitious in our efforts to deliver it.
Tim Farron is the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale
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