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Opinion: The housing election?

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Opinion: The housing election?

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Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Central Government

'Tight fight' predicted for local council elections 'Tight fight' predicted for local council elections

Colin Wiles considers the chances of housing playing a big part in next year’s election.

The 1951 census showed that the housing crisis was worse than anyone had imagined. Nearly four in 10 homes had no fixed bath, 22% did not have exclusive use of a WC and the shortage of homes was found to be double the assumed figure – a deficit of 1.4 million homes in England and Wales.

Even though the census results did not appear until after the election, housing featured strongly in the campaign. One election manifesto stated, “Housing is the first of the social services…Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by overcrowded homes. Therefore (we) will give housing a priority second only to national defence. Our target remains 300,000 houses a year.”

This was, of course, the Conservative manifesto, and it highlights the strong political consensus on housing that existed after the war, something highlighted by the SHOUT campaign.

With an election less than a year away, could housing issues influence the ballot box to the same extent as in 1951? You would think that rising house prices and rents, increasing levels of homelessness and a growing priced-out generation should pave the way for housing to feature heavily in the election headlines. But will it?

Polling figures presented by Ben Marshall of IPSOS MORI at the CIH conference may provide some answers. First, the good news: the number of people rating housing as the key issue has risen from 7% in 2009 to 14% now (although it was 27% in 1974 and 16% in 2007) and eight in 10 agree there is a housing crisis, (although four in 10 blame immigration for soaring house prices – more on this below). Six out of 10 also believe that the housing crisis is something that can be tackled by government, and is not an act of nature. Another encouraging statistic is an apparent preference for social housing to be built rather than homes for sale.

Perversely, even though eight out of 10 agree that there is a national housing crisis, only four in 10 support new homes being built in their local area (three in ten oppose it).

But the figures also reveal a clear split between owners and renters: 54% of renters disagree that there is enough affordable housing in their local area compared to 43% of owners, and 50% of renters support local house-building compared to only 35% of owners. What’s more, 60% of owners are absolutely likely to vote at the next election compared to 46% of renters.

Research by Generation Rent shows that over nine in 10 of those who have lived in their home for more than five years are registered to vote, compared with just two in 10 of those who have rented their homes for less than a year. The growth of the private rented sector has effectively disenfranchised a vast swathe of the population. Elderly homeowners are almost twice as likely to vote as 18-24 year olds, and this is precisely the group that is likely to oppose new house-building, so it becomes doubly difficult for the voices of the poorly housed to be heard in any campaign.

More worryingly, the IPSOS MORI polling shows that immigration is vying with the economy as the top concern for voters. The biggest unknown about next year’s election is whether UKIP will repeat their success at the Euro elections. Immigration and the economy are both strong housing issues, so we should be able to exploit them: firstly to show the clear links between house-building and economic growth, and, more importantly, to challenge UKIP’s simplistic (and only) housing policy that closing the door to immigration is the answer to the housing crisis.

The growth of the private rented sector may be also be decisive in the campaign. Generation Rent’s research shows that 35% of private renters could cast their votes according to manifesto housing pledges.

The final point is that voters are still fairly ignorant about politics and housing. 52% of voters say “none” or “ don’t know “ when asked which party has the best housing policies, while four in ten don’t think parties pay much attention to housing as an issue. We clearly have a problem in persuading the main parties to prioritise housing as an issue.

For me, the message is quite clear. The potential exists to make housing a significant election issue but we will need to focus upon three clear issues and groups.

First, to persuade influential elderly homeowners of the need for new homes, both nationally and locally. Second, to challenge the simplistic UKIP message on immigration and housing, and third to focus upon those constituencies where private renters can make a difference to the outcome. Beyond this, we need to keep banging the drum for housing, and make sure that the main parties recognise it as a key electoral issue.

Not much to do is there?

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