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The UK’s housing crisis is political

Ben Ansell

4 min read

For most of the past few decades, homeowners and renters have been on either side of the political spectrum – but change is afoot

For the young of the United Kingdom, it might feel like they are trapped in a never-ending housing affordability crisis. In 2019, the median house price was 7.7 times median wages in the average constituency. And while house prices may be entering a period of decline, that in part reflects rising mortgage rates, countering any gains in affordability.

Is it sustainable for the country to have unaffordability levels this stark? That depends on what you mean by sustainable. In terms of the economic prosperity of younger generations and their ability to afford to raise a family, perhaps not. Is it politically sustainable? Absolutely. 

Over the last couple of years, I have conducted a number of surveys in the UK that have examined in some detail how British people feel about building houses. The results are not comfortable reading for so-called ‘YIMBYs’ – the British public are, for the most part, signed up members of the “anti-growth coalition”.

I asked several thousand respondents a fairly simple question, drawing on one used for decades in the British Social Attitudes Survey: “Thinking about new housing in your local area. How much would you support or oppose more homes being built in your local area?” with a five-point response from strongly oppose to strongly support. The good news is that Brits have fairly balanced views. The bad news, for those who think we don’t build enough houses, is that only 38 per cent of people either support or strongly support new homebuilding – with 39 per cent opposed or strongly opposed. 

The public is not monolithic. So, who wants more houses? On the whole building new houses locally is popular among the young (under 40s), the highly educated, and renters. Perhaps no surprises there – but intriguingly, people with expensive houses or high incomes are also pro-building. Views on house building also correlate with political preferences – only 30 per cent of Conservative voters in the last election want to build new houses locally, compared to 50 per cent of Labour and SNP voters. Liberal Democrat voters are, stereotypically, halfway between.

The country’s geography is also diverse. Where wants more houses? To find out, I pooled my surveys of over 6,000 respondents and ran a “multilevel regression with post-stratification”, usually called an MRP. This technique pools what we know about individual voters, and regional differences in support, with local demographic information, allowing me to estimate the support for house building in each constituency.

In the last two elections the gap between homeowners and renters has become much smaller as older renters shifted Conservative and younger homeowners towards Labour

The house-building map of British constituencies shows a clear urban-rural divide. People in London and the large Northern cities are supportive – those in rural England, presuming that starts in London’s green belt, oppose building. Scotland as a whole, even in rural areas, wants to build houses. There are some ironies here – people living in already dense places want new housing there, people (except in Scotland) living in population sparse areas don’t. 

I also asked people to explain their views on house building. Among opponents the words “infrastructure”, “doctors”, “village”, and “cope” were prominent. Among supporters “affordable”, “homeless”, “landlord” and “need”. Our divides are in both our preferences over house-building and our justifications for them. It’s not immediately obvious how to reconcile these divisions. But clearly, building houses without thinking about the public infrastructure that goes with them will only worsen our political divides.

And housing has become an ever more important wedge in that divide. For most of the past few decades, homeowners and renters have been on either side of the political spectrum: the former about 20 per cent more likely to vote for the Conservative Party than the latter. 

But there has been change afoot. In the last two elections the gap between homeowners and renters has become much smaller as older renters shifted Conservative and younger homeowners towards Labour. Should this pattern continue, the monolithic block of homeowners, who underpin Britain’s negativity towards building more houses might break. Housebuilding may not be popular. But it may soon have its day.

Ben Ansell is Professor of comparative democratic institutions at Nuffield College and author of Why Politics Fails

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