'The election result may have more to do with housing than we think.'
The result of last week's election could have more to do with housing than it seems, says senior policy advisor John Perry as he takes a look at what voting patterns could be telling us.
Housing is often ‘the dog that doesn’t bark’ in elections but last week could it have been nipping away in the background?
One of the most striking pieces of analysis of how Britain voted came from the Financial Times, which showed how pro-Conservative or pro-Labour voters were divided by age group. Those in their middle years – 45- to 54 year-olds – were equally likely to vote either way while older people – especially those over 65, were far more likely to vote Conservative.
On the other hand, young people, especially those under 35, were even more likely to vote Labour. The gap between old and young was also far wider now than in previous elections. As the Financial Times puts it, people under 25 created a landslide for Labour while the over 65s moved in the opposite direction.
What’s this got to do with housing? Well it can’t be coincidence that the over 65s are the one group to buck the trend away from homeownership. Since 2004, the proportion who owner-occupy has gone up from 72% to 78%, with nearly all of these having paid off their mortgages. Many are safe and sound in their own homes, and if they have an interest in the housing market it’s in prices rising, not falling.
In contrast, most young people have had to abandon homeownership as a pipe dream. In 2004, 57% of 25 to 34-year-olds were owners and so were 27% of under 25s - now the figures are down to just 38% and 10%. With a slight decline in younger age groups living in social housing, this has meant a massive growth in their use of private renting.
Why would this affect their votes last week? My contention is that current housing policy fails young people on at least four grounds.
First, incentives to homeownership like Help to Buy don’t help the majority of them, as is obvious from the figures just quoted.
Second, young people are now a bit less likely to get social housing then they were a decade ago, so it doesn’t provide them with a safety net either.
Third, in this election there was a clear divide in the parties’ housing policies on the issue of security of tenure and rents in the private rented sector, and on building genuinely affordable homes to rent. The Conservatives promised to ‘look at’ improving security and creating longer tenancies, but Labour committed to make three-year tenancies the norm and to put a cap on rent rises. Both parties promised more affordable housing but Labour’s target (100,000 by the end of the parliament) was more specific.
Finally, the government may well have been halted in its tracks by self-defeating welfare reforms that particularly affect young people. The youngest (under 25s) have already been excluded in most cases from the housing element of universal credit. Soon, under 35s are to be heavily restricted in what they can claim too, so most will be unable to afford a one-bed flat if they are on benefits. This affects almost all young people, since private landlords are now far more sceptical about taking them on as tenants, even if they are working, given that if they lose their job they won’t be able to pay their rent.
Of course, without more survey data it’s impossible to say how much housing weighed in young people’s minds compared with issues like the ‘gig’ economy and tuition fees. But if you’re worried about where you will be living in six months’ time, or you can’t afford to leave the parental home, it’s pretty likely to be a factor in how you vote. And Generation Rent have pointed out that 20 of the 32 seats that the Conservatives lost to Labour and the Lib Dems had more renters than average.
Will the new government adapt its housing policies so they address young people’s needs? Or will they risk these issues being a factor in how they vote in the next election, too?
John Perry is senior policy advisor at the Chartered Institute of Housing.