Housing policy in the 2017 general election quickly became a game of go hard or go home on housebuilding. The Conservatives and the Labour Party were neck and neck, both promising a million new homes, while the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party offered houses in the hundreds of thousands. Social housing pledges were in vogue, while measures that would reduce the necessity of social housing were worryingly absent. Help to buy was the phrase on everybody's lips.
Housing policy was one of the biggest opportunities for political parties to win the youth vote. No amount of Stormzy collaborations and Snapchat filters could drown out the generational anxiety that is housing for young people. One in every five young people have had to sofa surf in order to have a safe roof over their head. Millennials spend three times more of their income on housing than their grandparents did in the 1960s and 1970s, for worse quality accommodation. Sensible housing policy is at the top of our generational wish list. So why does it feel like we weren't asked?
The Conservative manifesto talks about social housing on fixed terms, to be sold on a right to buy basis after fifteen years. This from the party that cut housing benefit for under those under twenty-one and fails to grasp the problem young people face. The Labour Party, one of the biggest winners of the youth vote surge, got closer to the mark with rent controls, which if they actually worked would be a step in the right direction. They did, however, still endorse help to buy, which is known for deposit demands that aren't realistic for young people who can barely make rent, let alone save, and creates its own problems by pushing house prices up.
The Liberal Democrats arguably come closest to meeting the housing issues faced by young people in the UK with Rent to Buy, but as the party have said themselves this is only for people who can already meet the market demands of mortgages, and is no suitable solution for our reliance on social housing, or the unhealthy power balance between landlords and renters. UKIP provide a rather novel solution in the form of affordable factory built homes, and if sold at rates that those earning £26,000 a year could afford as the manifesto suggests they would be far more affordable than your average help to buy. They hit a roadblock, as all the other parties do, when they try and explain where the land to build such houses is in areas of high demand like London and around metropolitan cities is.
It is of course very easy to criticise party policy, and far harder to provide solutions. I do know where I'd start however.
The rental market in the UK needs serious reform. Gone are the days of the Conservative voting, middle-class home owning ideal of the past. Many young people would be more than happy to rent their home if the market was effectively reformed. It works in many European countries where renters have a more secure relationship with their landlords and pay a more reasonable proportion of their incomes on rent. The flexibility that comes with renting in a society that is more interconnected than ever is a real draw for young people. We need to end the leasehold crisis leaving many people who buy affordable housing unable to afford their homes as their ground rent rises unexpectedly with ruthlessly enforced legislation against such sales.
Location is also a big factor for young people. Gentrification is rife in London and is rapidly spreading. The northern powerhouse never got off the ground. House prices where there is work are on the increase while commuter culture turns once vibrant communities into extended car parks. More support for young people saving for deposits and ‘help to buy’ properties with more reasonable deposits where people actually want them are the order of the day - even if that means relaxing our ideas of what the green belt should be.
City planning needs to focus on quality not quantity. The current bubble of cheaply built investment flats with high yields will one day burst. Our cities can not survive on overpriced student housing and too small investment flats alone. To address this we must challenge the outdated image of young people's homeownership that are prevalent in British politics. The housing crisis hits young people far before they start considering buying a family home.
In a generation with declining numbers of people deciding to get married or have children, flats and two-bed properties need to be as much of a priority as family housing. Better quality flats and 1 & 2 bed properties, made of better materials and with reasonable square footage would allow many people to remain in those properties over the long term. This would also allow older people who may decide to downsize to have real options when their children leave home or when the maintenance of a large house impacts their quality of life.
We need to make buying a home with friends or with a partner easier and safer. For this we need limited and well defined mortgage liability for joint parties, and to make it easier to take equity from homes that are still occupied when those who take up joint mortgages decide to move on.
We need to make better use of our listed and heritage buildings. Too many heritage buildings are demolished and replaced by cheaply built properties with none of the historic or material value that their predecessors held. Meeting future housing demands cannot be done at the expense of our historic buildings and landmarks of cultural value. Nor should it be done in spite of. Listed buildings when left empty or left to rot offer us very little, but listed buildings in use as affordable homes could retain their historic value while adding vibrancy and commercial viability to some of our most well known and loved buildings.
More homes is not a solution when those homes are too small, poorly built and in the wrong places.
Rent controls have the potential to seriously damage the diversity in the housing market. Social housing needs to be social housing first, temporary and provided to those who need it most, not a rapidly depleting chain of right to buy without replacement. Housing benefit needs to be reinstated for those under twenty-one to reverse increasing levels of youth homelessness and to provide a real safety net for young people.
In a political culture more interested in offering young people gimmicks, celebrity endorsements and Instagram memes than real sustainable policy, there is a lot of work to do. That work will begin when we involve young people in the political establishment as valued members of diverse teams. That work will start when more young people are part of the party policy formulation process.
That work won't be without a few bumps and grazes as the establishment image of home ownership and city planning clashes with a new set of priorities, that aren't as different as the establishment might think. That work won't get off the ground when we play guessing games with young people's housing priorities.
We need to shift the goalposts in the fight against the millennial housing crisis, and young people are ready and willing to work on this ambitious project.