The last few decades in the UK have witnessed significant improvements in quality of life and the internet has opened up a new world of opportunities for young people today. However, there has been one major negative change in young people’s lives in the UK: housing. Opportunities seem to be shrinking with each passing year. The interwar era saw the start of a property owning boom in Britain, with millions of new suburban homes built to accommodate growing aspiration amongst the expanding middle class. In the post-war era the aim of many young people was to own their own home before they hit 30 and certainly by the time they married. For decades this was an achievable goal and generations of young people bought their own homes in their twenties or early thirties. When Margaret Thatcher brought in the right to buy your own council home, one of the single most popular policies any government has ever introduced (judging by take-up), many millions more joined the property owning democracy.
Then, gradually at first, something began to change. As the population continued to grow and demand for houses grew even faster with more people living longer staying in their own homes and more family breakdowns, the housing stock failed to keep pace. Governments of both parties failed to replenish council housing stock and house builders, conscious of the rising value of property, have seen no benefit in building at a pace fast enough to meet demand, thereby cutting into their profits. Of course, many builders would dispute this, but it is a widely held sentiment amongst housing experts. The planning system hasn’t always helped, all new developments rightly need thorough assessment but sometimes these drag on for years. People in general are contradictory, on the one hand complaining there aren’t enough affordable homes for young people in their area, then vigorously opposing proposed new developments to meet that need. Government has also failed at local and national level to incentivise and smooth new house building in the places where demand is highest, clearly shown by growing regional disparities in property prices.
Something has to change. Right now, many young and not so young people feel the housing market has failed and the cards are stacked against them. Many people I know in good white collar jobs are years away from being able to afford a house as they approach 30, most of their wages go on rent and the high cost of living in London, leaving little for saving. Some of the older generation complain young people today waste too much on frivolous lifestyle spending in comparison to their own youth. There may be a grain of truth in that, but we want people to enjoy a higher quality of life, that is the whole benefit of capitalism, and the main issue for young people today is not their spending, but the explosion in the ratio of average house prices to average incomes over the last two decades. There has been an inarguable failure of supply.
The state is very bad at doing most things, it is slow, inflexible and inefficient. However, it can sometimes be good at doing big, simple things, like building millions of new homes. Housing has always been an area where all but the most ideological of Conservatives recognise there is a role for the state to play. The Conservative government of the 1950s undertook a massive house building programme to meet people’s demand for homes. Clearly the lessons of the mistakes in design and planning for some social housing built in the 50s, 60s and 70s need to be learnt, but over the decades there have been improvements. More new social housing is clearly needed, but so is private housing. Using tax incentives, planning simplification where appropriate and even some firm government pressure we need the state to encourage house builders to start building at the rate required in the places needed.
Right now as a young Conservative I struggle to explain what we are doing to help other young people in the areas most important to them. They have been helped by the millions of new jobs the government has helped generate through creating a more business friendly economy over the last 7 years, but on the biggest issue facing young people today – the cost of housing – we have not done enough. We lost young people heavily to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party at the election in June. His policies of borrowing more and spending ever more would have an extremely detrimental effect on young people’s lives and livelihoods in the medium term, but many are tempted by the idea he might crash the economy and even make housing affordable. That is not the reality of what would happen, but in the Conservative Party we need to start offering young people hope again. Or we cannot reasonably ask for their vote. Owning your own home has been our version of the American Dream in the last century, at a time of ever increasing opportunities where much of our party philosophy chimes with young people’s individualism Conservatives have to start delivering again on the opportunity for people to own their own home.