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Only central government has the power to resolve Britain’s housing crisis | Lynsey Hanley

Our housing problem hits the economy hard, yet politicians seem to lack the will to take any action

One thing that’s struck me frequently during the last month’s social tumult has been the abject failure of our property-owning democracy to concern itself with those who don’t own property. A twisted consequence was the staggering lack of empathy shown by looters and destroyers towards small-business owners, regarded as “rich” in the face of all evidence. Another is the fact that we seem to be the only country in Europe to have decided that your degree of enfranchisement is dependent on owning your own home.

This week’s report from Oxford Economics, conducted by the National Housing Federation, predicts that home ownership will fall to just under two-thirds of households, from 2001′s high-point of nearly three-quarters, taking us back to levels last seen in the mid-80s, when the right-to-buy was in its early days and interest rates were in double figures.

We’ll still have a property-owning majority in 10 years, then, but the social and economic health of the nation in that time could be decided on governments’ treatment of the growing population of long-term renters. For that reason I dream of waking up one day soon to find an incumbent housing minister doing the job that the whole country is screaming out for them to do.

What does that involve? First, making sure enough suitable housing is available to meet demand, through a combination of sensitive yet decisive measures to build new homes and keep old ones in useful circulation. Second, detaching the task of housing people healthily and equitably from the task of making people feel as if they’re rich. Third, preventing this essential part of our infrastructure from being subject to endless poking by new ministerial brooms.

Housing shouldn’t just be a ministerial post; it ought to have full cabinet status: it’s a determining aspect of public health, a litmus paper for the underlying health or sickness of the economy, and therefore important enough to need a degree of protection from partisan faffing.

If the aim of a “property-owning democracy” is inherently a conservative one, it’s not one that you can automatically argue with from a social-democratic standpoint. Spain has 80% home ownership and, for now at least, a socialist-party government. Levels of home ownership in Germany, which has a centre-right government, range from around a third of households overall to under 20% in Berlin.

In some ways a renting culture encourages transience, but not in others: the very affordability of rented housing in Berlin goes some way towards explaining why it has the highest birth rate in Germany, in spite of the city’s relative dearth of decent jobs. Low rents mean low deposits and the absence of that British paranoia about “throwing money down the drain”.

British renters, on the other hand, suffer from a combination of insecurity – assured shorthold tenancies only run from between six months to three years – and inaffordability, which cements the relationship between the quality and availability of jobs and that of decent housing.

Similarly, it’s in the same areas that housing is cheapest to buy that higher numbers of homeowners are struggling with their mortgages. To buy a house for £60,000 requires a deposit of between £3,000 and £15,000 – a laughably distant figure for someone earning the minimum wage, who, for their part, is less likely to have property-owning (and therefore inheritance-leaving) parents and grandparents.

Indeed, the Oxford Economics report reveals that the average income of a first-time buyer now needs to be £44,464 in order both to raise a deposit and to raise a big-enough mortgage. In the report’s words, that’s “close to the top 10% of earners”. At which point a lightbulb goes off in my head: that’s the only segment of the population that the coalition is actually bothered about. The rest can scrabble for what’s left.

There’s no question in my mind that housing demand needs to be tackled at the level of central government: only it has the power to legislate for fairer tenancy agreements, the money to pump into stalled housebuilding schemes, and the political will at once to create jobs and fulfil demand by instigating a fully funded programme of multi-tenure building.

That would mean acknowledging that free markets need tethering if inequality and disenfranchisement aren’t to remain rigid features of British society. Only those without imaginations could possibly see this job as dull, yet its takers seem paralysed, if not by boredom, then by a conviction that there are some problems you can’t do anything about. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds