Housing policy managed over decades for the benefit of developers and homeowners has led to insecurity and inequality for everyone else. The number of households renting privately in England and Wales has risen hugely – from 1.9m in 2001 to 5m in 2021, while the home ownership rate has fallen to 62% from 64% a decade ago. Outright ownership (with no mortgage) is the most common form of housing tenure in England (33%) and Wales (38%). But the ownership rate among younger adults has fallen sharply. Like black and ethnic minority people, they disproportionately inhabit low-quality, privately rented flats.
This damaging situation means that housing is recognised as a key issue by politicians in all parties. On Monday, Michael Gove, the housing secretary, sought to address it with a speech that was stronger on style than substance. Having abandoned an obligatory target of 300,000 new homes a year, after a threatened revolt from backbenchers, Mr Gove is seeking to persuade voters to ignore his party’s record and focus instead on the vibrant city centres that he sketched in the air.
Densification was the buzzword, along with the adjective Heseltinian – a tribute to the redevelopment of east London championed by Lord Heseltine via the London Docklands Development Corporation. Mr Gove wants to revive this model, or something like it, to push forward schemes in 20 towns and cities. After years of missed targets, and faced by an aggrieved cohort of priced-out voters, he argued that the state must confront nimbyism head-on. In public he was polite about Anthony Browne, the Tory MP who rubbished a flagship project in Cambridge. But it doesn’t require reading the runes to see that this didn’t bode well.
The renters reform bill that is making its way through parliament will, belatedly, lead to some improvements for existing tenants. No-fault evictions are to be banned and landlords required to meet deadlines in responding to hazards – a measure campaigned for by the family of Awaab Ishak, whose death was caused by mould in their home. But commitments to leasehold reform remain woolly. Meanwhile, a new play is a reminder of the continuing pain of Grenfell survivors.
Mr Gove wants to make contrasting approaches to development a dividing line, depicting himself as an urbanist visionary and Labour – with its proposal to relax restrictions on the green belt – as the party of suburban sprawl. But this rhetoric masks an unflattering reality. Under the Tories, renters’ interests have been neglected, along with those of smaller builders and the councils that are responsible for social housing, including in city centres. Meanwhile, a handful of giant construction firms have prospered (and been significant contributors to Conservative party coffers). Unbelievably, and in defiance of the Climate Change Committee, they are still selling homes with such poor environmental specifications that they will need to be retrofitted to meet 2025 standards.
Labour has not yet shown that it has the answers, as recent confusion over whether or not to support rent controls illustrated. But Mr Gove’s fine words should not fool anyone. Residential property has been turned from an amenity shared between public and private sectors into an asset for speculators. Weak regulation of landlords and a failure to reform property taxes have contributed to growing polarisation between property haves and have-nots. Densification squads hand-picked in Whitehall are not the answer.