Declining home ownership is a national crisis
It is time that the Government made promoting home ownership a major priority, writes Paula Higgins
November 13, 2012
Do you want to own your own home? If you don’t, you are, to put it politely, statistically unusual. If there is one thing we are agreed on as a country, it is that we want to own the roof over our head. Survey after survey, year after year, shows that nearly nine out of 10 of us want to do so. It doesn’t matter what class, age, sex or race you are, or whether you live in social housing, rent privately or have already stepped on to the ladder. Pretty much all of us want to own the place where we live. The desire for home ownership didn’t feature in the Olympic opening ceremony, but it unites us far more than support for the monarchy or the NHS.
This is not an irrational national hysteria. We shake our heads when we talk about ourselves as a nation of home owners, and mock ourselves when we realise we have spent the entire dinner party talking about house prices. But, actually, there are many very solid reasons to want to own your property – and for the government to support you in this aim. It is a million personal tragedies – and a major national crisis – that home ownership is in decline. In a report we at the Homeowners’ Alliance are publishing next week, we will show that the dismal truth is we are no longer a nation of home owners.
When we are young we dream of buying our own flat or house, and, for many, getting the first set of keys is the ultimate right of passage to adulthood. You are finally in control of your home around you. You can decide what colour to paint your bedroom, or whether to install a new bathroom. Being responsible for fixing the boiler might be a pain, but it reduces the sense of helpless dependency. Owning your own property raises living standards among middle income earners. Not owning their own home often forces adult “boomerang” children back to living with their parents, putting a massive strain on both sides.
Owning your own dwelling is the ultimate freedom. But it so much more. It gives families security, reduces welfare bills, and combats poverty in old age. Children also fare better when their parents own the place they live in, as it provides security and continuity, whereas the insecure nature of private rented accommodation leads to more frequent moving. Pensioners are far less likely to suffer poverty in old age – and less likely to be forced to rely on the welfare state – if they have built up the safety net of owning their home, rather than paying rent all their lives to someone else. By spreading ownership of assets, widespread home ownership reduces inequality.
Promoting home ownership is that rare thing – a good policy that is also good politics. During the twentieth century, government after government promoted home ownership, transforming us from a nation of renters to a property owning democracy – and driving forwards social and economic progress. In 1900, owning your own home was the privilege of the elites – just 10 per cent did so. With social housing almost unheard of, almost the entire population were at the mercy of often very dodgy private landlords. By the end of the century, roughly 70 per cent of households owned their own home.
But the housing crisis means we are unwittingly sleepwalking back to becoming a nation of renters. Home ownership is in decline, and most of that decline has been focused on the young, with home ownership levels among older groups far less affected. Young people today face the prospect of being locked out of the housing market for a generation, denying them the opportunities their parents had, and the chance of realising their dreams. The decline of home ownership is having and will increasingly have profound, long-lasting and adverse economic and social consequences.
It is time that the Government made promoting home ownership a major priority, and it is time that home owners had a voice. It is why I and some other home owners set up the HomeOwners Alliance – the first organisation in Britain, launched today, to champion and serve the interest of home owners and aspiring home owners. Such homeowner groups are common across Europe, with mass membership, and a powerful political force.
But in Britain, there is no one to speak up on behalf of home owners, or lobby for their interests. There are hundreds of lobby groups for the industry – from housebuilders to estate agents – but no one to represent the interest of home owners or aspiring home owners. It means that home ownership doesn’t get the political attention it deserves, and home owners don’t get the services they deserve. As a homeowner, you are usually a lay person doing major deals with professionals, and the scales are tilted against you. When I was responsible for the review of building control standards for the government, I was so desperate to get input from home owners about what they wanted, I resorted to setting up a stand at the Ideal Home Show to ask random home owners. Home owners and aspiring home owners deserve a louder voice – and a better deal.
Reversing the decline in home ownership should be one of the Government’s highest priorities. It is good for the economy, good for society – and it is what the overwhelming majority of people want. We need to become once again a nation of home owners.