Toby Lloyd, head of policy at the housing and homelessness charity Shelter, points to a real crisis in housing for the young, but warns against characterising it as an intergenerational war: older generations want solutions too
There’s no doubt about it: England has a chronic shortage of affordable homes. At Shelter we see the consequences of this every day, as our advisers help more and more people struggling to find or hang on to a home.
Crisis for the young
As the affordability crisis has worsened over the last ten years, more people have needed our help – and from a more diverse range of backgrounds. It’s no longer a crisis hitting just those on low incomes, but those in the middle too. It’s not only felt in London, but in every corner of the country. It’s not just the families facing the loss of their home, or those in long queues for social housing, but the renters struggling with high rents, poor conditions or landlords threatening to kick them out after six months. It’s the priced-out couple watching house prices rapidly outpace their wages and savings.
There is one constant, though: all of these problems, however varied, disproportionately hit young people the hardest. Homelessness is far higher among the young, who have also been among the hardest hit by benefit cuts. Meanwhile, the recent English Housing Survey showed the total collapse in home ownership – and explosion in private renting – among the 25–35 age group.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Meanwhile, it’s been a boom time for older age groups. The numbers of people owning their home outright has soared, overtaking mortgage holders for the first time on record, as those fortunate enough to get on to the ladder generations ago pay off their debts and start to live cost-free. Many have seen the value of their homes rise exponentially as the crisis gets more acute.
And to make things worse, that same older group of voters are typically seen as a major barrier to the only real solution: blocking the development of desperately needed new homes locally through well organised “Nimby” campaigns.
All of which makes it very tempting to articulate the housing crisis as the main battlefield on which the intergenerational war is to be fought; priced-out young people vs the sinister “grey vote”. A fight to the death.
But this would be a mistake – for three main reasons. Firstly, because lots of older people struggle with housing issues too. For instance, there’s a real shortage of appropriate homes for elderly people who want to downsize. Our housing system is so dysfunctional that even many of those who might be assumed to have benefited have not: some of the worst poverty is suffered by older homeowners on very low incomes, often living in shocking conditions.
More cynically, it would be a dubious political strategy to suggest to politicians that they should choose between representing the interests of a group who vote en masse, against a group that don’t.
But thirdly, and most importantly, too simplistic a view of the generational divide misses the opportunity to create a powerful political constituency across the generations. In fact there is real scope to get older people to understand the housing problems faced by younger generations, and to increase their support for solving them.
What has driven housing up the political agenda is not just anxiety amongst those directly affected – but among their parents too. Even though they likely own their own home, parents are increasingly worried about whether their children will ever be able to afford a decent, stable place they can call their own. It’s partly why support for stable or falling house prices has increased so significantly in the last few years, even among homeowners.
There is no reason this can’t also apply to older generations too. It’s their grandchildren who, no matter how hard they work and save, still can’t afford a place of their own. Maybe it’s their great grandchildren who at eight years old have lived in eight different homes because their parents have to keep moving from rented home to rented home.
Intergenerational positive thinking
Last year, Shelter entered the Wolfson Prize to design a new Garden City, which we proposed to be built on the Hoo Peninsula in Medway. With the help of corporate partners we undertook a huge amount of local engagement with people in Medway to get their views on our proposal: focus groups, polling, a day-long Citizens Jury.
One of our focus groups featured older voters exclusively. Surprisingly, despite some initial scepticism, they were one of the most receptive groups we researched. They all had fond memories of the visionary post-war housing projects, so more readily identified solving the problem as a job for government (something that can be a barrier with younger voters). Moreover, many of them had an acute sense that the prospects facing young people in the area were deteriorating – in terms of jobs and the cost of homes.
It was around that focal point that most of the older people in our focus group ended up supporting our proposal, as long as it created affordable homes for ordinary people. And this is in the seat that went UKIP last November. Importantly, those that were opposed did not do so for any nefarious reason – they too thought they were protecting the interests of their grandchildren; they just interpreted that interest differently (fields for them to play on rather than homes to live in).
Scope for this kind of support is backed up by recent data from the British Social Attitudes survey. This showed an astonishing collapse in Nimbyism across all demographics between 2010 and 2013, and a rise in support. This change-around was most marked among the 55–64 age group (47% against/28% for new homes being built locally in 2010, which changed to 29% against/48% for in 2013) and those aged 65+ (50% against/26% for in 2010, 30% against/42% for in 2010).
This doesn’t mean, of course, that every new home is going to be warmly embraced by every older voter – or that older voters don’t remain more likely to mobilise against development. But it does show that Nimbyism is increasingly a minority sport even among that group.
Similarly, none of this means there are no trade-offs to be had in housing policy – ultimately not everyone can win. We can’t have booming prices and increasing numbers of first-time buyers.
But it does mean that as campaign groups, if we make the effort, older voters can be just as sympathetic to our message as any other group. Their interests are constructed, not given. We shouldn’t write them off as implacable enemies of the young.