How to build popular support for social housing

What would a popular, left wing housing policy look like?

Three of the most pressing and controversial areas of government policy in the UK at present are; childcare, housing and adult social care (see for example Nick Pearce’s blog on the subject).

It was no surprise when in his recent budget, George Osborne included announcements of extra money in these three areas.

Briefly, he announced tax cuts to help families with childcare costs, government guarantees for people trying to get a mortgage and a cap on the maximum people can spend on care in later life (the cap will be £72,000).

The left in British politics has been developing strong counter arguments on these topics in recent years. However, I do not believe that the left has yet developed a strong idea that the public will back on how to reform the housing system on the UK.

The left has stronger arguments on adult social care and child care.

On adult social care, the government is doing far less than the Dilnot commission recommended (they recommended a cap of more like £35,000). More impressively, Andy Burnham has been floating the idea of a national care service that would be free at the point of use.

On childcare the government’s announcements seems to disproportionately benefit richer households. In contrast, the Resolution Foundation and others have been making the argument for more universal, high quality childcare services.

In both cases, the left has developed a case that a sizeable percentage of the public would support.

Despite a lot of work I do not think that the same could be said for housing.

For example, Jack Dromey’s response to the new housing policies announced in the budget rightly pointed out the government’s failure to stimulate the construction industry. However, it was weaker on what Labour’s alternative approach would look like.

For many on the left the default housing policy is to build more council houses. One of the major problems with this policy is that it is not popular with the public.

In general the public do not support the idea of building new homes of any type.

Do you support new house building?

By a massive majority the public far prefer the idea of owning than renting.

Would you prefer to rent or buy?

And, when asked to say which housing policies they most support they chose giving assistance to first time buyers and increasing access to mortgages more than they chose building more council housing.

The challenge for the left then is, can they develop housing policies that both address the major problems of housing need facing the country and are popular with the public.

Any thoughts from readers would be most appreciated.

Two houses, divided

David Cameron has launched the Conservative party’s annual conference with a divisive interview on Andrew Marr’s show. Not only is he coming up with policies that will inevitably increase youth homelessness. He has also, unwittingly, laid a trap for himself, that Labour can now spring.

In that interview Cameron uses the issue of housing to draw a distinction between two types of people. He says;

‘We do need to look at choices we make in this country. Take young people, if you leave school, you go to college, you work hard, you get a job, you don’t have any chance of having housing benefit, living at home with mum and dad often into your 30s. If you take a different path, don’t go to college, sign on, get housing benefit, get a flat, then of course if you get a job you’ll probably lose the housing benefit on the flat. So I think we want to look at the signals we send in welfare and I think we should recognise the welfare cap we put in place, showing that no family should be better off on welfare than in work, that was an extremely powerful and sensible and very popular actually thing to do.’

Hardly one nation stuff!

Still, it’s not hard to see where this strategy comes from. There is less and less public support for benefits as a form of redistribution and the Conservatives have mismanaged the economy to such an extent that they believe they now need to find further cuts to hit their deficit reduction strategy

Putting these two things together means it is almost inevitable that they will want to cut benefits while claiming they are on the side of the hard working majority.

However, there is a big political trap here which Labour could spring on the Tories.

The fact is, that the Tories have very little to offer the ‘striving’ young person that Cameron describes. Wages are not going up, unemployment remains high, there aren’t any new houses being built and mortgages are hard to come by.

The default response of many on the left will be to criticize Cameron’s efforts to take away housing benefit from under 25s, since that would, in all likelihood, mean an increase in youth homelessness. This is of course right and proper.

A second response is also needed though. Labour needs to show that the Tories are actually doing nothing to help hard working people (young or old). Labour needs to contrast the current situation with policies that will increase wages as a share of the economy, build more homes and make it easier to get a mortgage.

This would build on policies that have already been floated such as building new homes using the money from the 4G auction, using QE to boast house building, and so-called ‘pre-distribution’ approaches to raising wages.

Cameron and the Tories’ constant invocation of ‘strivers’ ‘doers’ and so on is in fact, a noose around his neck. If they continue on their current course they will have done little for this group and should expect little gratitude in return. The opportunity for Labour to benefit from this is enormous.

P.S. Jules Birch does an excellent job of pointing out some of the problems with Cameron’s position, not least of all the fact that the benefit cap which he refers to has not yet been put in place.