It might feel as though the election we’re hurtling towards is about one thing and one thing only: Brexit. Since we voted to leave back in the salad days of 2016, Parliament has been deadlocked, our MPs unable to agree and our country’s future on hold for what has felt like far longer than three years.
The ballot choices in the referendum may only have read “leave” and “remain”, but that vote was set against a housing crisis that has since worsened and became a national emergency. Between 2009 and 2019, house prices rose above earnings, pricing an entire generation out of homeownership and pushing growing numbers of people into an already creaking and expensive private rented sector for far longer than their parents.
Just as our vote for Brexit was never only about leaving the EU, this election is about so much more. Here’s a rundown of what each of the main political parties are saying about housing in their manifesto, and whether it might actually make a dent in the housing crisis:
You’ll be totally unsurprised to hear that the Conservatives – the self-appointed party of home ownership – are focusing on how to increase that at this election. In fact, there’s been a distinct departure from housing policy under Theresa May who was the first Tory prime minister to start talking about building social housing for years. You’ll find no mention of that here whatsoever which – given that social homes are the only way to solve the housing crisis – is really disappointing.
However, you will find a reiteration of the party’s promise to build one million new homes over five years. That sounds like a lot but if you break it down, that’s an average of 200,000 homes a year. The government’s own current target is 300,000. It’s also worth noting this is actually lower than the latest official figure for new houses entering the market (241,000).
To help first time buyers, the Tories are proposing a new market for long-term fixed rate mortgages which would be available with only a 5 percent deposit. That won’t help the one in three renters who will be caught in a rent trap from cradle to grave, though. There are a couple of things for renters that are worth noting here. Under Theresa May, the government promised to end no fault Section 21 evictions. This is included in the Conservative’s manifesto as a pledge and, even though it’s not a new policy, it would make a huge difference to the private rented sector. Section 21 means that a landlord can effectively revenge evict a tenant for complaining about conditions and is generally acknowledged to be one of the leading causes of homelessness.
They’ve also adopted a policy which the campaign group Generation Rent have been proposing for some time – a “lifetime” rental deposit that moves with tenants between homes to help those who can’t stump up the cash each time while waiting for a previous landlord to return their money.
It’s fair to say that this offering is a bit more exciting. Labour have promised a “housing revolution”. Sounds like the usual general election hyperbole but if you dig into what they’re saying, it would actually go some way towards righting the wrongs of the last decade of neglect in housing policy.
Labour are promising £75 billion of investment over five years that would go towards building 100,000 new social homes and 50,000 “genuinely affordable” homes each year. In recent years the term “affordable” has been stretched so far when it comes to housing that it’s basically meaningless. However, Labour are promising to redefine it by linking affordable housing to local incomes. Hallelujah.
For renters, there is very good news. Labour are proposing national rent controls to cap rents at inflation with powers at a local level for authorities to limit increases even further. We actually had rent control in Britain until the 80s. A return to regulating the private rented sector would help millions of people who can no longer afford a home of their own, making housing more stable and addressing the power imbalance between tenants and landlords.
Labour also want to repeal the 1824 Vagrancy Sleeping Act which criminalises rough sleeping.
When I was reporting on the scam that was letting fees back in 2015 and 2016, I worked closely with the Liberal Democrats. In the end, they introduced a bill which was adopted as policy by the government and resulted in a much-needed ban (the Tenant Fees Act) on these fees for renters.
But the offering from a party that helped get something so momentous through parliament is a little beige. The Lib Dems are promising three-year tenancies that would help renters gain more security, but their proposal pales in comparison to Labour’s rent caps when rents are this unaffordable.
Perhaps the party’s most talked about housing policy is their suggestion of government-backed deposit loans for first-time renters under 30. This was mocked widely on Twitter and criticised for putting money directly into the pockets of private landlords. But this would actually help people in real terms, as getting a deposit together is a huge barrier for many people, with 43 percent getting into debt as a result.
The Lib Dems aren’t shying away from social housing, either. They’re pledging to build 100,000 social homes a year, and increase total housebuilding to 300,000 a year by 2024. They’re also looking at increasing Local Housing Allowance (LHA) – which is used to calculate how much housing benefit or Universal Credit someone will get depending on the size and location of their home – so that it actually covers the cost of renting by “bringing it in line with average rents in an area”. At the moment, LHA rarely covers rents and leaves people struggling so this would really help.
The Lib Dems also want to see the back of the 1824 Vagrancy Act.
However you decide to vote on December 12th, try to think beyond Brexit. The current status quo in housing is unsustainable and something has to give. If we end up with a government who aren’t serious about tackling the housing crisis, we could see things get even worse than they are now. A safe and affordable home is the one thing we all need.
Confused about which party to vote for in the upcoming general election? Check out VICE's handy primer to all the manifesto policies here.