House prices, and their rise and fall, have become a national obsession. At the end of July, media reports proudly proclaimed that house prices in Scotland have risen nearly 6 per cent in the last year and more recent news claims that house prices in Scotland are now at record levels.
The notion that homes are a commodity to make money from may be one of Margaret Thatcher’s most enduring legacies. But if we have learned anything from the economic downturn, and the housing crisis that fuelled it, surely it is that the dream of the ‘free market’ rarely works for everyone.
Far from creating a property-owning democracy, homeownership is highly exclusionary; creating inequalities not only between, but also within generations. This is something colleagues and I are investigating at St Andrews, in partnership with the Universities of Dundee, Birmingham and Essex. Older generations have benefited more from house price gains than my generation of 18-35 year olds, as housing is now more expensive in relative terms, and more difficult to access and sustain. Young people are taking longer to get on the property ladder, if at all, when compared to their parent’s generation. Our research, however, has uncovered that no age group is homogenous. Individuals have different experiences of navigating the housing market depending on their age, household size, income and location. For young people, whether family support is available also plays a critical role.
Geography is fundamental to understanding all of this. Housing markets vary significantly across the UK, due to different house prices, tenure structures, labour markets, and government policies. Yet this is regularly overlooked in policy analysis and media commentary, which too often focuses on issues of ‘affordability’ and ‘shortage’ affecting London and the South-East of England. Housing ‘problems’ play out in different places in different ways, with devolved government allowing for unique national solutions to emerge.
Despite these deep and entrenched inequalities, surveys continually report a long-term preference for homeownership. It seems we Scots, like the rest of our UK neighbours, have an emotional as well as financial attachment to owning our own home. Why is this? Housing is expensive to buy and maintain. It can constrain our ability to change jobs, and shape decisions about our daily living arrangements and environment. Although having an ‘asset’ is attractive as a home that we own provides us with security in old age, and an inheritance to pass down to our children. One could argue homeownership is driven as much by a lack of viable alternatives, as it is the pursuit of a ‘dream’.
In the 1980s, the decade I was born, around half of the Scottish population lived in social housing. It was the ‘normal’ tenure of choice. Being both popular and desirable, and providing secure and affordable housing to working class families. Three decades later a raft of policies have served to undermine the attraction and possibility of living in social housing. Homeownership has in turn been transformed into ‘the tenure of choice’ (through policies such as the current Help to Buy scheme) with renting by de facto reduced to an inferior, tainted and stigmatised housing option.
This brings me in a roundabout way back to the question of devolved government and the distinctiveness of Scottish policy solutions. One thing that has really disappointed me in the run up to the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum is the lack of political imagination when it comes to housing policy. This is an historic opportunity for both sides of the campaign to think differently, and more creatively, than the rest of the UK about what type of housing system we want to have. We have already seen recent signs of departure in Scotland in reaction to the Bedroom Tax and the abolition of the Right to Buy. But there is more to be done to deliver a housing system that provides all Scottish citizens with the housing and communities that they want and deserve. I want to see a Scotland where people can actively shape the homes and places in which they live, and above all else have a warm, safe and secure home to call their own: whether owners or renters.
Thanks to colleagues and associate members of the Centre for Housing Research who allowed me to bounce my ideas off them before I sent them off to the blogosphere!