This election was arguably the most divisive in a generation. Brexit had broken Britain in two but there were three forces fighting over it: the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats (not forgetting the SNP in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales, and the unionist and nationalist parties in Northern Ireland of course).
But while Boris, Corbyn and Jo Swinson fought over Europe, the economy and NHS, they were standing largely on common ground when it came to housing.
As surprising as it may seem given the huge gaps perceived between them, all three major parties were united in their support for state-subsidised homeownership, a more regulated rental market and more affordable housing. And in line with the general push towards green policies off the back of Greta Thunberg’s world tour, Extinction Rebellion’s headline-grabbing protests and David Attenborough’s tear-jerking documentaries, all three pledged more eco-friendly homes too.
So while singing from different hymn sheets, politicians of all parties were pretty loud and clear what they wanted homes to be for once: cheaper, greener and owner-occupied. Sadly, they were louder more often about Brexit, so housing was only an issue for a day or two in the campaign.
To help boost owner-occupation, the Tories suggested reviving Starter Homes for local buyers and key workers, introducing lifetime fixed rate mortgages and extending Right to Buy for housing association tenants, much of which made it into this week’s Queen’s Speech, although as with Starter Homes before, nothing may ever happen.
The Lib Dems floated a new Rent to Own model while threatening to slap second homeowners with a 500% council tax increase, presumably to force them to sell to local buyers rather than actually raise any additional revenue for local authorities. Like the Tories, the Lib Dems also wanted to charge foreign buyers extra stamp duty in a bid to make house-buying easier and cheaper for native Brits.
Meanwhile, Labour initially proposed – then quietly dropped – a Right to Buy for private renters. However its supposedly ‘semi-Marxist’ manifesto gave no end date to Help to Buy – effectively a massive subsidy for listed housebuilders – while also suggesting giving local residents priority when buying new homes in their area, a policy not unlike the Tories’ revived Starter Homes for key workers and local buyers. It’s hard to imagine what Karl Marx, whose grave in Highgate cemetery sits close to Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North constituency, would think of his promotion of private property.
All parties were also clear on who was to blame for the fall in homeownership: other people. Despite all the talk of Britain still being open post-Brexit, there was undoubtedly a nativist streak to the three parties’ approach to boosting homeownership. All blame outsiders – foreign buyers, holiday homeowners or even just those from the town next door – for keeping first-time buyers off the property ladder.
Buy-to-let (BTL) investors, who have had an unexpectedly hard few years under the Tories with reduced mortgage relief, extra stamp duty and new regulation like Right to Rent checks, were also in the firing line.
Labour took multiple shots, demanding rent controls, state-funded renters’ unions, open-ended tenancies and an end to no fault evictions. Together, these proposals would effectively kill off BTL, which is no doubt what many Labour supporters probably hoped for, imagining the quickly sold off assets may end up with them rather than other people.
The Lib Dems were characteristically less radical than Labour, calling for multi-year tenancies with transparent rent increases, rather than open-ended ones, while also backing mandatory licensing for BTL landlords. Yet they are behind the market, with BTR operators like Grainger plc already offering long-term tenancies while reforms to BTL mortgages have allowed amateur landlords to offer longer contracts too and some local authorities have already introduced landlord licensing.
The Tories promised the least change when it came to the rental market, although pledged to ban no fault evictions, like Labour – a move unpopular with many landlords. They also proposed lifetime rental deposits, which companies like flatfair have warned will likely prove unworkable.
Despite the industry’s concerns, both policies ended up in the Queen’s Speech, admittedly alongside a commitment to strengthening the right of landlords to regain possession of their properties. Yet when you consider the Conservatives have already banned letting fees, reduced mortgage relief for landlords and introduced new regulation like Right to Rent checks, their approach to the private rented sector doesn’t appear too far away from Labour and the Lib Dems.
In a way the area of greatest agreement was surprisingly affordable housing. While the Conservatives only vaguely promised “hundreds of thousands” of new affordable homes, the Lib Dems vowed to build 100,000 social rent homes a year, with Labour topping them by pledging 150,000 a year, with local authorities building at least 100,000 of those. For institutional investors looking to enter the affordable housing sector, this new government may give them the opening and certainty they need – former Tory housing minister Kit Malthouse did call for a private social rent market at RESI 2018 after all. But how welcoming future governments will be is unknown and for profit Registered Providers have already caused controversy, even if Savills agrees they could help meet the shortfall in affordable housing.
Of all the parties, it is the Conservatives who have shifted most in housing: George Osborne’s social rent cut and reduced grant funding feels a long time ago now, even if he did also start to squeeze BTL landlords. But Labour’s promises to help first time buyers shows how even if BTL – a product of the Thatcher era – is on the way out, her dream of a property-owning democracy is still very much shared by politicians of all stripes.
BTR barely featured in the conversation, although that may not be a bad thing. While outright rent caps would be devastating, and now put to rest thanks to the Tory majority, broader rent reform may not be the bogeyman everyone fears anyway: the experience from Europe shows us well designed regulation can drive occupancy rates without badly damaging returns.
Looking ahead, offsite manufacturing is another sector that has already secured cross-party backing and support will likely grow, not least given British politicians’ love of hi-vis, hard hats and factory visits for TV appearances.
As well as being greener thanks to reduced waste and improved building performance, offsite manufactured homes are also well suited for affordable housing, which is why housing associations like Places for People have partnered with ilke Homes.
So when the next election comes around (and hopefully it’s not for a while) expect much the same from politicians: more help for first time buyers, greater protections for tenants, attacks on landlords, more affordable homes as well as greener homes. Except this time they’ll want them all to be factory built.