Reflecting on how the major political parties have addressed the housing crisis over party conference season, James Pargeter explores whether they are on the right track, missing crucial points or completely off the rails – and what might the signals be for the Build to Rent sector?
By James Pargeter, Senior Advisor at Global Apartment Advisors (GAA)
Whilst the abrupt truncation of the HS2 railway project has attracted much of the conference season attention, it seems that the housing crisis has finally risen to the top of the political agenda, and not before time. There’s a realisation that this huge national and generational problem that has been repeatedly postponed as too difficult, or too long-term to tackle effectively, can be put off no longer.
The parties are competing for who can be seen to be promising not only the largest but also the fastest delivery of additional homes in the next parliament. There’s an election coming, after all. Competition for crucial votes across the country is understandable and, although not necessarily the best circumstances for sound policymaking, it’s very refreshing to see the change of mood.
So, what have we learned over recent weeks? I summarise below the housing headlines for each major party through my very pro-housing but unashamedly Build to Rent lens – in chronological order of their conferences. The SNP event is still yet to come (15-17 October). It will be interesting to note any discussion or specific feedback on the rent freeze measures in place in Scotland.
Democracy was visibly in action at the LibDems’ conference, with the YIMBYs coming out on top. Taking their cue from the 2021 by-election success in Chesham and Amersham, the leadership had sought to scrap national housebuilding targets, presumably to tempt more NIMBY voters into the fold. However, a concerted rebellion from the LibDem membership, particularly from the Young Liberals, led to restoration of their annual target of 380,000 homes, including 150,000 for social rent. Other than a generic pledge to improve measures for renters, such as longer-term tenancies, specific measures for market rental homes seem to have been absent.
The most remarkable aspect of the Tory conference was that housebuilding was reportedly not mentioned on the main stage at all – other than at the end by the PM, who mentioned the potential for some new homes at post-HS2 Euston to get people ‘on the ladder’. Even Michael Gove, the DLUHC Secretary of State, only seemed to imply the topic was on his mind by making a renewed pledge to protect the green belt. He made no mention of renting at all, not even referring to the flagship Renters’ Reform Bill – although he was pushed later to claim it will be in the King’s Speech on 7 November. That remains to be seen.
There was some housing discussion at fringe events although, as might have been expected, views largely focused on homeownership (a lot of ‘getting on the ladder’), a few mentions of affordable housing but no real mention of the need for more market rental homes. Indeed, the most telling moment for me was the current Housing Secretary, Rachel Maclean MP informing a presumably incredulous fringe event on the private rental market that her offspring not only all rent their homes but also vote Conservative. For any of the audience still on their chairs or reaching for the smelling salts, she went on to clarify that not all private renters are “weed smoking, bad people in gangs and crack dens, and everything else, smashing up the neighbourhood. There’s lots of decent people, hard-working people, living in the PRS”.
So, the rumours are true – Conservatives rent their homes too. Who knew? But we might be homing in on something here…
By contrast, the Labour conference has given a very significant emphasis on housing issues and increasing supply – right from Angela Rayner’s opener, through to Kier Starmer’s impressive ‘Get Britain Building’ closing speech, with a wide range of fringe sessions in between. The ambition is clearly enormous for the delivery of new and additional homes (1.5 million over the next parliament, or 300,000 per year), and even entire new towns – all conveyed with a sense of real and positive urgency. Lots was said about homeownership (a target to grow it to 70%) and affordable housing (especially council and social rent) and squeezing developers to deliver these ambitions.
For me, this raises various concerns from a Build to Rent perspective. Renting was referred to only in talk of the focus on social rent and council homes, or of bad landlords and unacceptable resident experiences in the PRS. Shelter had a distressing exhibition stand on display – a mock-up of the sort of temporary housing that too many people have to endure was a striking reminder of the nature of the bottom end of the rental spectrum. We all want to see an end to this.
By following the event over media and social media, rather than in person, there sadly seemed to be very little to suggest to me an understanding that Build to Rent (and other purpose-built rental homes, including single-family rental, co-living, etc) provides people with a better choice, greater security and a quality experience when they either need or want to rent. There are many reasons for people making that choice (often on the path to ownership in the longer term), and it’s not solely a function of affordability. The DMR intermediate rent affordable model (at multiple affordability tiers) which Build to Rent is best suited to deliver ‘tenure-blind’ is perfect for many keyworkers and other local essential workers who would never be eligible for a social rent home, no matter how many are delivered. Sadly, I don’t think it was mentioned.
Taking a step back from the conference platforms, this diagram from Redfield & Wilton Strategies (as at 1 October) perhaps indicates why priorities are addressed so differently. For the Conservatives, housing is only the ninth most important election issue for their likely voters, behind pensions. For Labour, housing sits right up there as the third most important issue for their likely voters.
However, encouraging all of this may be for the national housing agenda, some huge questions remain around planning, funding and construction sector capacity, especially at this point in the economic cycle. We know that ‘all stick and no carrot’ will not achieve the desired results for anyone, and we must continue to argue for flexibility – to be pragmatic, not dogmatic.
Importantly for our sector, it’s quite clear to me that Build to Rent is still not widely understood politically and that we have a lot more work to do on this narrative. It is surely the case that housing needs in almost all parts of the country cannot be met through the polarised model of homeownership and traditional social housing alone – the growing number of people in the middle of the spectrum are neglected in this outdated delivery model.
We know that Build to Rent can fill this gap – in numerous specific locations it is demonstrably doing so already. The sector’s emergence always represented a cultural change around renting – to create options that are distinct from ‘the PRS’, and to provide better rental experiences via secure, quality Build to Rent homes. We urgently need to improve understanding of this in the context of wider societal trends, if the Build to Rent sector is to grow and diversify as people need it to. As an example, I’m currently co-chairing the BPF’s London Engagement Group for Build to Rent, and we are currently engaging with the team at City Hall with the aim of enhancing mutual understanding of the sector.
To broadly summarise current political perceptions, it seems to me that the Conservatives still instinctively view renters with disdain and Labour view private rental landlords similarly as an unnecessary evil. Neither view is helpful, and importantly neither side probably yet understands why there may be votes in long-term renting. Both parties of potential government also fail to adequately distinguish Build to Rent from the wider PRS, which is also unhelpful. This view may be oversimplified, and there are a few exceptions, but responsibility for that’s largely on us and it undoubtedly represents a hefty challenge into the future.
The first ten years of Build to Rent sought to attract investment into the sector. The next ten years must evolve into a better political and public narrative, to enable many more Build to Rent homes to be delivered for people who need them, and at higher speed.
Which brings me back to my train analogy. If we think of the homeownership train as arriving at Platform 1, it’s become too expensive and there are still plenty of spare seats. If the social housing train is on Platform 2, there aren’t enough carriages and people are struggling to get aboard. Meanwhile on Platform 3 for Build to Rent, the crowds continue to grow and are demanding longer, upgraded trains and a far more frequent service. If only the platform CCTV worked properly, they might just get noticed before there’s a passenger rebellion…