Urban housing policy can win the British general election

Urban housing policy can win the British general election of 2015. British politicians are neglecting 18- to 24-year olds: the only housing policy announced by the Conservatives that specifically targets young people is cutting housing benefits for those under 21! According to polling firm ComRes, 69% of British young people think voting is an important part of being involved in society, and 47% of them are at least "likely" to vote this May. The parties should be listening to the ComRes survey, because the opinions of young people are not the same as the rest of the population. 23% of young people want parties to prioritise cost of living and housing affordability. Housing policy could be the way to win the youth vote if either party could come up with innovative ideas before the general election on May 7.

The UK has a strong history of using housing policy and planning reforms to win general elections. Most famously, Margaret Thatcher used the "right to buy" to swing traditionally left-wing Labour voters to Conservative in the 1980s. The right to buy enabled long-term social housing tenants to purchase their homes at a discounted rate. More recently, the current government targeted not-quite-middle-age, middle-class voters with a £200,000 "starter home" policy that offers a minimum 20% discount on their first home. These homeownership-focused policies have never targeted 18- to 24-year-old renters.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies, a UK-based economic think tank, recently announced average incomes are back to pre-crisis levels, but just not for young people. Brits between the ages of 18 and 24 have seen the biggest fall in real incomes since 2008, excluding their increasing housing costs. Britain is in a worsening housing crisis and 18- to 24-year-olds feel it.

The left-wing Labour party has put itself out there by proposing a "mansion tax" and rent caps in London only. However, many voters see these policy ideas as manifestations of Labour leader Milliband's trade union roots and his deep left heritage. For a generation suffering from stagnant incomes, rapidly rising rents are an issue, but capping London rents will do little for those suffering outside of southeast England. The solutions need to be nationally applicable but regionally nuanced.

Desperate times call for radical policies. After the second world war, while suffering from blitz damage and industrialisation, Britain built "new towns". These new towns offered something different; they were an innovative solution. They were different from any other housing policy of the time, in that they occupied greenfield sites far from existing urbanisation and provided a holistic solution to inner city crowding. The policy proposals of 2015 must tackle demand and affordability at the same time. The Conservatives have pledged to build 400,000 new homes. Many argue such an increase in housing supply will reduce pressures on housing prices and enable low-income younger people to move out of their parents' homes in a way that does not cripple them financially. However, finding space for new homes is challenging, and it is here that policy must innovate. The parties must find viable solutions to the "where" questions, solutions which recognise the needs and desires of young people across Britain's cities. New housing policies must offer a viable, long-term solution to housing affordability for 18- to 24-year-olds.

Current suggestions are not the answer. Novel approaches could capture the attention of young people and get them interested in politics again. Today, 920,000 fewer people are registered to vote for the UK's general election than five years ago. The differential is most pronounced among younger voters. Capturing these young non-voters could be the key to winning the UK's general election this year, and it could be accomplished by attending to what young Brits care about: housing affordability.

Frances Brill is a PhD student at University College London. She writes at politics.co.uk and is involved with Civic Voice UK.


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