The UK’s dysfunctional housing market is a largely taboo subject at Westminster. Few parliamentarians acknowledge the obvious: it would be far better for prices to fall sharply than continue rising, as millions of younger people are priced out of home ownership by the country’s most beguiling commodity fetish.
As policy, of course, this would be electoral suicide. Millions of ‘boomers’, the generation that voted in this government, are sitting on large, unearned capital gains on their homes. They will no more countenance an erosion of this one-off historic lottery win than – as Theresa May found out – use that equity to pay for their care in old age. The solipsism of the 1960s and 70s morphed into pure self-interest.
‘Generation Rent’ is right to feel cheated.
So it is that bullish free marketeers lose all conviction when it comes to propping up property prices. They know their constituency. Rishi Sunak’s stamp duty holiday will be cheered from the gilded rooftops of ageing Middle England – and is a welcome boost for conveyancing. But for society as a whole it is a distinctly mixed blessing.
For proof, one need only peruse our fast-expanding rental market. This is even more dysfunctional. Private tenants, for example, continue to have few ‘rights’ worth the name. And even fewer political allies. If you have ever tried to rent a property in a city, you will be aware that you are a second-class citizen. You’ll generally get just one year’s tenure. Then, if the landlord deigns to renew, s/he can boot you out at two months’ notice. If anything breaks down you are dependent on the landlord’s goodwill to fix it – a positively Victorian anachronism. Even if you sign a draft agreement, you still have no leverage. The landlord can change their mind until the day you move in, leaving you homeless.
Curbing legal aid for housing advice was one of ‘austerity’s’ most grievous missteps. But if Covid-19 is to have one beneficial consequence, it may be to revive the notion that ‘good secure housing should be a basic human right’. FD Roosevelt certainly thought so; and Boris Johnson proclaims himself ‘Rooseveltian’.
But it’s unlikely – not least because so many MPs are landlords.