Election 2019: Social housing will be critical to winning votes from low-income ‘Inequality Street’ residents

THE poorest families have been hit hardest by Britain’s 40-year housing crisis, according to research by the Resolution Foundation, and this may prove a political wildcard for the contenders in the coming election showdown.

For those on low incomes, the last 15 years have been especially grim, suggests the thinktank’s new report – Inequality Street – out today. According to its analysis, rising housing costs have wiped out 90% of any gains in living standards that low income families might otherwise have experienced since the early 2000s.

Since 2002, the report claims, low income families have seen £1,200 gouged out of living standards by fast-rising housing costs. By contrast, thanks to falling interest rates, high income families have found themselves £400 better off because their housing costs have fallen in real terms over the same period.

Inequality Street finds that home ownership among young families aged 25-34 has, despite a recent rise, almost halved since its 1989 peak – from 50% to just 28%. High house prices relative to family incomes mean it will remain harder for such families to save a deposit large enough to get on the housing ladder.

So far, so familiar. However, the report also notes that high day-to-day housing costs also matter hugely when it comes to family living standards in the here and now. Back in 1980, the average family spent just 10p of every £1 of income on housing. Today, this has doubled to 20p.

This burden of rising housing costs has fallen more heavily on those families with lower incomes. Back in 1980, the poorest families spent 15p of every £1 of income on housing. Today it has more than doubled to 40p.

Inevitably, this has further fuelled Britain’s rampant inequality. However, as the report reminds, there is much policy at work in this disparity, especially in the years since 2010 with the onset of welfare reform, austerity and government housing policy that was all-but completely focused on boosting home ownership.

The Resolution Foundation says that Britain’s housing crisis is really three crises: low home ownership, high housing costs, and a “particularly acute disaster” for low income families.

It seems fair to observe that this latter aspect of the crisis has been largely ignored by politicians and policymakers, even as it has been exacerbated by their efforts to deal with the former.

The stark decline in social housing, the rise of private renting, and cuts and freezes to housing benefit, all seem almost tailor-made to shift the burden of the housing crisis onto the backs of the poorest.

Certainly, the near-total collapse in the construction of new social housing over the last nine years hasn’t served to help those on low incomes, as government investment was diverted to various home ownership products, and on more expensive forms of ‘affordable’ rented housing.

Furthermore, the accumulating loss of existing social homes through right to buy and conversion to the so-called Affordable Rent, ensures that the housing choices available to those on low incomes is even more tightly restricted.

With more people now left little choice but to rent privately, and with cuts and freezes to housing benefit, it’s easy to see how low income households have been abandoned to a ‘sink or swim’ struggle, but the election may yet bring a reckoning, suggests the Resolution Foundation.

Public concern about housing has grown in recent years, Inequality Street argues; one-in-five adults now believe it is one of the most important issues facing Britain today. That’s up from one-in-20 in 2001. As such, it would be most unwise for the main political parties contending to win the December election to ignore the matter in their upcoming manifestoes.

The Resolution Foundation says it is vital that the next government recognise that tackling the housing crisis means taking action to help lower income families; this must be reflected in party manifestoes with some solid proposals.

Among its policy recommendation, the Resolution Foundation says housing benefit must be tied to actual rents; policy must not only recognise the need for more social housing, but also that social rents are on track to rise faster than private rents in the years to come. This would only serve to further deepen housing cost inequalities.

“In this election, politicians know that housing is an issue close to many people’s hearts. Young people in particular, many locked out of buying their own home, may welcome proposals to build more in high demand areas,” said Daniel Tomlinson, research and policy analyst at the Resolution Foundation.

“But political parties also need to address the legacy left from 40 years of higher housing costs. As incomes have not risen at anywhere near the same pace as housing costs, families have dedicated a greater share of their income to housing. This burden has landed most heavily on low-income families, particularly in recent years when housing costs have actually fallen for higher income families.

“Over the next few weeks, we not only need to see election manifestos promising to address falling home ownership; we also need political parties that are serious about lowering the cost of a roof over your head for lower-income Britain.”

This may be an election when the poor bite back, then, if the Resolution Foundation’s report has any credence. But this organisation isn’t the only one to have raised the prospect of low-income voters becoming a force to reckon with in the coming election.

Back in October, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published a landmark report setting out how the low-income voters could play a crucial role in determining the outcome. Again, politicians ignore the concerns of these volatile voters potentially at their electoral peril.

There are 9.5 million low income voters in Britain, according to the research, which was conducted in July; 2.7 million can be defined as swing voters. At the last election, there were 130 seats where the number of low-income voters in the constituency was larger than the majority secured by the winning candidate.

Some may be tempted to dismiss the likely electoral impact of those on lower incomes, but JRF’s research claims that not only are they now more likely to vote (up 7% between 2015 and 2017), they have become more willing to switch between parties, and between voting and not voting. Of those who had not voted in 2017, 59% said they now planned to vote in the next election.

What’s more, the JRF’s research found high levels of disillusion, distrust and cynicism, with many voters becoming jaded and suspicious over what they see as broken promises, neglect, and a feeling of not being listened to; a simmering cocktail, for sure.

For all that, people’s strong wish to improve their own prospects and those of their communities remains undiminished; they want change, they want progress, they just don’t trust the politicians to deliver it. However, it is urgent that the major political parties “make headway” with this diverse group of voters, the JRF says.

Most are looking for leaders who understand their lives; reflect their values and will tackle the issues that matter most to them and their families, according to the research. These cover some fundamental ‘bread and butter’ issues vital to the overall wellbeing of the nation, economically, socially and indeed politically.

The top five of these were measures to promote local economic growth; training and job opportunities; but low-income voters, as with voters overall, also demonstrated high levels of support for:

  • More secure tenancies in the private rented sector
  • More council and housing association homes for rent
  • And a guarantee that social security benefits rise in line with inflation

“Action on living standards is not just a route to Number 10 but is also the right thing to do,” said the JRF’s executive director, Claire Ainsley when the research was released.

“Low-income voters may now hold sway in very many constituencies across Britain. They feel increasingly locked out of jobs, investment and opportunity. All parties must commit to a programme to improving living standards for those who are least well-off, investing in communities so places can thrive, and designing a social security system that enables families to keep their heads above water.

“Ultimately delivering on promises which improve people’s lives is the best way to restore trust and prove that politics can bring people together and be a force for good.”

NH

 

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