Most commentators agree that the ‘cost of living’ will be a key battleground at the next election, and no list of the factors affecting living costs today is complete without reference to the challenge of helping young people to own their own home.
As the Prime Minister mentioned in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference last year, the average age at which someone is able to buy their own home without any help from their parents is now 33. “We are the party of home ownership - we cannot let this carry on”, he said.
This was the theme of an event held in Westminster last night by communications agency Westbourne, which has wide expertise in the infrastructure sector having recently worked on the campaign for high speed rail among other things. The event heard from Planning Minister Nick Boles, alongside Next CEO Lord Wolfson, Kate Henderson of the Town and Country Planning Association and Executive Chairman of the Home Builders Federation Stewart Baseley. All were there to make the case not merely for more housing, but for Garden Cities: “holistically planned new settlements which enhance the natural environment, provide high quality affordable housing and locally accessible jobs” (source).
Mr Boles in particular is determined to encourage more house-building generally. He has identified the lack of available housing as a key factor driving up house prices and cites figures showing that the last government succeeded in building only 147,000 new homes a year on average between 2000-2010, falling well short of its own annual target of 213,000.
But house-building is inevitably a controversial issue. As the Prime Minister put it in his conference speech, the debate is coloured by “yes-but-no” people: “those who say “yes of course we need more housing but “no” to every development - and not in my backyard”.
New research by Populus, conducted to support last night’s event, suggests proponents of increasing the housing stock face an ever deeper problem, for the public doesn’t simply oppose every new development in their area, they don’t necessarily recognise the problem in the first place.
Firstly, there is a clear generational divide between attitudes to home ownership. Many young people still aspire to own their own home, but the older generation – those who are far more likely to vote in general elections – do not see it as a basic right on a par with access to healthcare or education, as Mr Boles suggested in an interview with the Guardian last year.
Secondly, the public does not necessarily accept that the problem stems from a lack of housing. Research regularly shows that people believe the existing housing stock could be put to better use. In this latest survey, respondents suggested that making greater use of empty homes and controlling immigration were two things the government could do to improve access to the available housing supply. The word cloud below captures a sense of the issues respondents raised. The larger the word, the more often it was cited in response:
Third, if more housing is the answer, people don’t accept that this needs to be built on the green belt – areas of agricultural land or forestry outside existing towns and cities.
People generally think that there are sufficient brownfield sites that are yet to be developed, and they are willing to accept that using these sites will mean more people living in flats rather than family homes.
(Asked as: a) Build more homes on brownfield sites in city centres even if this means they are houses rather than flats; b) Accept that fewer people will be able to own a home in future and focus on the rental sector; c) Encourage developers to build more houses by opening up more Green Belt land for development).
All of this suggests that, while the Government is right to identify home-ownership as a key issue in its bid to build an ‘aspiration nation’, it has a lot of work to do to persuade even those it seeks to help that its current policies are the right ones to help them achieve their dream. There are a number of deeply held convictions that influence the debate and strong emotional attachments to the idyllic notion of England’s ‘green and pleasant land’.
Home ownership may continue to be the new Jerusalem for some, but few it seems want the houses necessary to deliver it to be builded here.
Populus interviewed 2,036 GB adults online during the weekend of 25th-27th January 2013.
For more details of the event, please visit the website of Westbourne Communications.