Generation rent

I was suitably riled listening to Grant Shapps on World at One at lunchtime today, failing to answer sensible points and questions about the housing market from Tony Dolphin and Owen Hatherley.  His ability to avoid any question and reply in ludicrous blandishments never ceases to amaze me. 

According to Shapps, house price inflation only occurs under Labour.  He must have been too young to remember the boom under Thatcher – and even worse the bust when home owners were abandoned with vast amounts of negative equity, a huge number of repossessions – and no government help.  At least when the bust came in 2007 – and never forget it was an international banking bust whereas Thatcher’s was home grown – the Labour government took a series of important steps to protect tens of thousands of home owners, and the tenants of home owners, from foreclosure and homelessness.  

Shapps simply fails to deal with the issues raised by two important reports today.  The first, the one that grabbed the headlines, was from the Halifax who coined the phrase ‘Generation Rent’ to show that people no longer feel that they will be able to buy and that half of 20-45 year olds now think renting is the norm, similar to much of the rest of Europe. 

The second, Tony Dolphin and Matt Griffith’s serious piece of work for IPPR, Forever Blowing Bubbles? takes a long hard look at housing’s role in the UK economy with a proper historical perspective.  It makes a series of recommendations for mortgage regulation and the importance of stopping borrowers from thinking that housing market is a one-way bet.  They also make a strong case for reform of the private rented sector to provide a real alternative choice for those who need to hedge their move into home ownership.  As they say, “tenure rights are weak and the sector is poorly prepared for larger families and their needs. The professionalisation of the sector is much needed to make it the natural choice for those who wish to sidestep the risks of the owner-occupied housing market.”

At one level it seems obvious, but they demonstrate the importance of looking at the housing market as a single entity and not two markets of different tenures, arguing for “reform of the PRS to make it a less destabilising influence in the UK housing market. As we have seen, BTL (buy to let)  investment has too often been speculative, volatile and a cause of pro-cyclical price pressures in the housing market. Worse still, it appears to have cannibalised existing housing stock, led to a weak response in total housing supply, distorted existing supply incentives to encourage the overproduction of small city-centre flats, and driven out large institutional investors by pushing prices up beyond sensible yields.”

Owen Hatherley, whose interesting article on home ownership and renting is also published today, put it to Shapps that people who could no longer afford to become home owners were left at the mercy of the unregulated and insecure private rented sector, and therefore faced no real choice at all.  And that secure public sector tenancies should be a genuine option.  Exit stage right for the Minister, off on another ramble about some excruciatingly complex shared ownership option he’s invented (effectively a cut-back and rebranded Labour scheme). 

The Government avoids the big questions in housing policy today, especially how the housing market – and the vast majority of people live and will continue to live in market housing – can be made to work for people on low and moderate incomes.  There is a real opportunity for Labour to build on these interesting reports and come to some radical but sensible and appealing policies of its own as the Housing Policy Review takes shape.

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