The Tories are agonising over Brexit. They should be more worried about housing.

The true test of leadership is strategic focus – trying to work their organisations into a favourable position over the long term, and then making tactical (short-term) choices accordingly. British politicians of all parties are very bad at this. Advisers who tout themselves as “political strategists” offer no more than tactical advice, on messaging or the use of social media, for example. Strategically the Conservatives have dug themselves into a hole. And I’m not talking about Brexit.

The current Tory predicament arises from their poor showing in June’s general election. This was despite what they thought was an unassailable tactical advantage – Labour appeared weak, and this was amply demonstrated in local election results. And yet that tactical strength covered a strategic weakness, which Labour was able to exploit. While Tories like to blame tactical ineptitude for their failure (and there was plenty on offer), those tactical failings were born of that strategic weakness.

What on earth am I talking about? The land, and who owns it – a theme that has dominated British politics for centuries. The Conservatives have a well-crafted appeal to people who own their own homes, and other assets too. This is what Mrs Thatcher grasped in the 1980s. She extended home ownership through the sale of council houses and loosening restrictions on mortgages. The latter had an important side-benefit: it pushed house prices up, and made home-owners feel wealthier, and more inclined to think that all was well with the world.

All Labour could do was copy the Tories. This Tony Blair did this brilliantly. But this was a triumph of tactics; Labour won three elections, but had nowhere to go after that. Collapse beckoned in 2015 as the party found that a vaguely left of centre appeal was neither fish nor foul. But, in 2017, the worm turned.

By now the scale of property prices has put ownership beyond the reach of most people who neither have property already, nor have an inheritance based on property wealth. There are two types of reason for this. First is that the building of houses where people want to live has not kept pace with demand. Politicians have guarded greenbelts ferociously, following the wishes of local electors. Little new social or public sector housing has been built. Commercial builders seem more anxious to profit from the purchase and sale of land than satisfy demand. Some economists look no further – but the ease with which people can borrow money must also have contributed. When I bought my first property in the 1980s, lenders restricted loans to 2.5 times salary and covered only 80% of the value. Restrictions are fewer now. Interest rates are also much lower. This has surely pushed prices up.

But whether or not you think that loose money or low house-building is the problem, there is an ever growing body of people who are forced to rent their homes, and are pessimistic about ever being able to buy them. The Conservatives, in the meantime, continue to lavish their attention on those who already own property. They were heading for a backlash, and this arrived in June. The Tories did especially badly in London and the South East, where property prices are highest.

Most Tories simply ignored this trend: David Cameron, their leader until last year, was especially bad at this. His only response was to try and subsidise first-time buyers, which just inflated property prices some more. He made no serious moves on social housing or on easing the lot of those forced to rent. But some Conservatives seem to have recognised the issue. One person who seemed to was George Osborne, Mr Cameron’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. His answer was to to see if he could stoke up property prices outside the south east, by strengthening the economy of north England in particular.

Mr Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, also has a sense of the problem. She proved stern on inherited wealth, and on tax-funded handouts to older people during the election. Whatever the strategic virtues of this, she made no attempt to woo younger voters with any real hope that she was on their side. She was simply attacking the Tory base. Meanwhile she has diluted Mr Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” strategy. It was an attempt to cover the party’s strategic weakness that led to the tactical error in the Conservative manifesto.

Meanwhile, Labour’s more stridently left wing appeal under Jeremy Corbyn  has turned out to be a good place from which to woo those forced to rent. Tory attacks on Labour were designed to motivate older voters, who have bad memories of left-wing politics – and they have passed younger voters by.

It will not be easy for the Conservatives to dig themselves out of this hole. They have started to grasp that more house building is needed, and that they can’t rely on private sector developers to accomplish this. But there is a problem. If houses are to become more affordable, then house prices will have to come down. The alternative prospect, of strong wage inflation alongside stable house prices looks implausible. But falling property prices will hurt their base, for whom the value of their property is a cornerstone of their wellbeing. This looks fatal – though if the party can find a way of boosting regional economies and drawing growth away from the south east, the evil day will be postponed.

It is much easier for Labour to take on what the country actually needs: more building of houses. The public sector will have to do the heavy lifting here – anathema to Tories. A large chunk of this new housing should surely be social housing, directly alleviating the worst social pressures. But public sector housing doesn’t have to be social housing – the government could take on strategic projects the private sector is unwilling to – and perhaps address builders’ abysmal productivity while they are at it. If it works, such building will reduce rents, and then the capital value  of land.

At the moment most political commentary centres on Brexit, and the pressures this is creating within both major parties. That is important enough – but housing may turn out to be more important still in the long run.

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The housing crisis is an opportunity for the left.

“A Britain that works for everyone.” This is what Britain’s Conservatives say they want to achieve under the new prime minister, Theresa May. Partly, of course, this talk is meant as an attempt to divert attention from the difficult choices implied by Brexit.  But there is an issue that is slowly coming to dominate the life-chances of “everyone”, and could be even more important than Brexit: housing.  Or to give this a bit more precision: the high cost of buying or renting residential property. In order to fulfil their slogan, the Tories will have to make progress on this. Will they?

What brought this home to me last week was a report that people born in the 1990s (the so-called millennials) are worse off than those born in the 1980s at the same time in their lives. This is startling for a society that has, generally speaking, benefited from economic growth over the last 30 years, and where educational standards are rising. And the reason is easy to see: compared to people born even ten years earlier, many fewer millennials can afford to buy their own homes. They are unable to benefit from a general rise in property prices that has proceeded apace over that 30 years. Meanwhile rental costs have gone up too, which only makes the gap wider. This phenomenon does not just apply to Britain’s overheated southeast – it afflicts most major urban centres, to say nothing of popular university cities like Oxford and Cambridge.

Why is this such a big issue? The millennials themselves are not particularly important electorally, especially as so many of them show little interest in the political process. But their troubles worry their parents. And the trend is evident from before the millennial generation. More importantly, the generations following the millennials will be equally deprived. The numbers of property have-nots are growing, and property wealth is being concentrated into a smaller number of hands. High rents is a cause of hardship for ever increasing numbers of people – and a cause of rising homelessness, with all the other problems that brings in its wake.

Politicians are increasingly aware of this. Conservative leaders are talking the talk. Mrs May has appointed a new cabinet level minister of housing, Sajid Javid, who talks of a moral crisis. All leading politicians talk grandly of building many more houses. But there are two political problems, which are linked. The first is that the crisis arises from a profound failure of market incentives. And the second is that any policy that actually works is going to hurt a lot of politically influential people. This combination presents a test for Mrs May that she is unlikely to pass. It is one of the few decent opening in British politics for the left.

First consider market forces. Read The Economist and you might think that the housing problem is quite simple at heart. It is a failure of supply to meet the increased demand for housing from a rising population and changes to lifestyle that mean more people want to live alone. And there is a ready culprit for this: restrictive planning laws and NIMBYs who resist new housing developments, which between them surround our cities with over-protected green belts. This glib explanation contains some truth, but it misses two awkward points: much land where development is permitted is not being developed because owners would rather wait – “land banking”; and loose monetary policy has pushed up the cost of housing regardless of supply and demand.

Consider the first point. Property developers profit massively from increasing property prices. Indeed, it is central to their business model. They like to build cheap houses to maximise their profits from land trading, fighting furiously any regulations that might make homes more thermally efficient, for example. It is not in their interests to increase supply to levels where the value of property starts to come down. For all their moaning, they are quite happy with the situation as it is – though they would love to get their hands on green belt land with permission to build, and bank that too. A similar logic applies to rental values, since so many new properties are bought to let. The economic incentives do not point to the private sector solving this problem by themselves. In fact many private sector actors are likely to oppose any policy that actually bites, since that means cutting rental and sale values.

The effects of monetary policy are less understood: by this I mean the way governments and their central bankers have had no real qualms about rising levels of debt used to finance private house purchases. This has been happening since monetary policy was let off the leash by the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates in 1970. The extra monetary demand for housing set off by this increased availability of finance has not been matched by an increased supply of housing. Indeed it is about this time housebuilding slowed down. Easy money has simply led to the inflation of land prices.

To illustrate this, look at this graph of the ratio of house prices to earnings from Wikipedia (By D Wells – Own work):

1200px-uk_housing_affordability_price_earnings_ratio

We should expect to see house prices rising in line with earnings, given its relatively limited supply. We can see that the ratio of prices is tied closely to monetary conditions. Monetary conditions were loose in the late 1980s (the Lawson boom), but had to be tightened as inflation started to get out of hand. That caused a crash that is seared into the memory of older Tory politicians – the years of negative equity. Then things eased, with the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s being years of easy money. The financial crash of 2008 tightened things up, but now conditions are loose again.

Of course easy money and land-banking are self-reinforcing. If property prices dip, property developers can be confident that monetary conditions will ease and come to their rescue.

If I am right about these two problems lying behind Britain’s housing crisis, the solution is quite easy to see. First there needs to be a massive public-sector house building programme, including a large proportion of good-quality social housing, available at rents well below the current market level. This is best done by local and regional authorities, and financed by allowing them to borrow much more. This would put downward pressure on rents, which is perhaps the most urgent aspect of the housing crisis. It would also make it much easier to tackle homelessness.

The second thing that needs to be done is to tighten monetary policy. This may be by using some form of quantitative control on housing debt, but it may also mean raising interest rates. The main idea would be to encourage banks to finance local authority housebuilding, rather than private mortgages. This will require political courage, as it means, for a time at least, property prices falling without making property more affordable (since it will be harder to get finance) – as happened briefly after the crash of 2008/09.

The good news is that the first of these two groups of policy is fast becoming consensus on the left – sweeping in Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. And yet it will be very hard for the Conservatives to stomach. They associate social housing with left-wing voters. It may also upset NIMBYs where the estates are to be built, to say nothing of hordes of people who have invested in property to let – all natural Tories. Tory politicians talk freely of raising large sums of money to push house construction forward. But I have not heard any talk of giving a serious boost to social or public sector housing, or giving local authorities more freedom. It sounds horribly like subsidies for the private sector that will end up by inflating prices and developers’ wallets further.

On the second issue – reducing the volume of private housing finance – I see little sign from anywhere in the political spectrum of this being taken up. This is unsurprising. It would mark a profound change in economic management, which is heavily based on monetary policy. And change would cause outrage in Middle England, attached to its property values. And yet the current way speaks danger. It is increasingly dependent on ever increasing property prices, as these lose touch with incomes. It is a bubble that will surely burst at some point. Even so, I am sure that the left is closer to this policy change than the right. One implication is that more of the load of economic management will be taken by fiscal rather than monetary policy. The left is much more comfortable with that, though I suspect few have taken on that it means supporting austerity at the top of the economic cycle.

Mrs May talks much of making life better for the hard-pressed in our society. Lower rents are surely by far the best way to achieve that. Does she and her party have the stomach for it? If not, the left will have its chance.

 

 

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We need more social housing

Holiday reading and reflection has certainly sharpened my political sense of direction.  I see housing and property ownership generally as being a critical issue here in Britain.  Hence today I have published an opinion piece in Lib Dem Voice.  We need better housing for a better Britain.

I will expand on this theme in future blogs here.

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Time to wake up to the de-industrialisation of advanced economies

Trying to understand the global economic crisis?  This article from Joe Stiglitz is required reading.

I have flagged it already on Facebook and Twitter, but without much in the way of reflection. In fact it has produced an epiphany moment for me.  I have maligned Professor Stiglitz in a past blog as producing only superficial commentary on the crisis, alongside his fellow Nobel laureate Paul Krugman.  This was based on one or two shorter articles in the FT and some snatches on the radio; I wasn’t reading or listening carefully enough.  Professor Stiglitz is one of the foremost economists on the current scene.  He used to be part of the Clinton administration, and worked at the World Bank in the 1990s, but his views proved politically unacceptable.  He also wrote the standard text book on public economics, which I used in my not so recent degree course.

The article is wonderful on many levels, but the epiphany moment for me came with his observation that, underlying the current crisis, is a long-term decline of manufacturing employment in the US, and by implication, other advanced economies too.  He draws an interesting parallel with the Great Depression, which was caused, he claims, by a comparable shift from agricultural employment – again in the US; I think that such a shift was less marked in Britain, but the depression was also less severe.  This decline in employment brought about a doom-loop of declining demand across the economy as a whole – which was only reversed by World War 2.  The war effort caused a boom in manufacturing industry which was readily redeployed into the postwar economy.  This view of the Great Depression rises above the fierce controversies over fiscal and monetary policy, and places them in a proper context.

We have been witnessing the decline in manufacturing employment for some years, and grappling with its social consequences.  The important point is that it is mainly irreversible. It has been brought about by technological change, which has improved productivity.  There is a limit to the number of manufacturing products that we can consume – just as there is a limit to the food we can consume, and we are at that limit.  So the number of jobs declines.

Of course the picture is complicated by the rise of manufacturing in the developing world, and especially China, and their exports to the developed world.  In the US I am sure, and certainly in the UK, more manufacturing output is now imported than exported, causing a further loss of jobs.  This is reversible, though, and in due course will reverse, as the developing world advances and loses its temporary competitive edge.  But this won’t be enough to reverse the overall trend of rising productivity.

But advancing productivity should be good news in the long run.  It releases the workforce to do other things, or, if people prefer, to increase leisure time.  So what replaces the manufacturing jobs, in the way that manufacturing took over from agriculture?  Services, of course.  What is, or should be, the product of these services?  Improved wellbeing.

Services have rather a poor reputation in our society.  Traditionalists see them as ephemeral, compared to the real business of making things – a bit like Soviet planners were obsessed with producing steel rather than consumer goods.  More thoughtful people associate them with poor quality jobs in fast food restaurants or call centres.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We need to develop clearer ideas of what tomorrow’s service-based economy will look like. That’s important because the way out of the current crisis is through investments that will take us closer to this goal, just as war led to investment in manufacturing in the 1940s (and earlier in Europe).

And the key to this is thinking about wellbeing.  This is important because one of the answers could be an increase in leisure, hobbies and voluntary activities – which is not normally regarded as economic activity at all.  Reflecting on this, I think are two areas whose significance will grow and where investment should be made, both of which raise awkward political problems – health and housing.

It is easy to understand that health and social care will take up a higher proportion of a future economy than they do now, and not just because of demographic changes.  These services are vital to wellbeing.  But we are repeatedly told that we can’t afford to expand them.  And that is because we are reaching the limits of what state-supplied, taxpayer funded services can deliver in the UK. (In the US it’s another story for another day).  The health economy of tomorrow will have a larger private sector component, whether integrated with the NHS or parallel to it.  But what should our priorities now be, while this private sector is on the back foot?  It seems sensible to make the NHS more efficient and effective, but foolish to cut jobs.  We should be building the skill base alongside the reform programme.  The chief critics of the government’s NHS plans (including the Labour front bench) are that NHS reforms should be stopped so that they can focus on the critical business of raising efficiency.  But maybe it should be the other way round – we should be pushing ahead with reform, but relaxing the efficiency targets and letting the costs rise a bit until the economy starts showing greater signs of life. then, as any cuts are made the private health sector can take up the slack.

Perhaps housing is pushing at the boundaries of what “services” are.  We traditionally view this as a capital investment.  But what I mean is providing more and better places for people to live in, whether they own them or not.  Most of the country is quite well off here, but poor housing is probably what divides rich from poor more than anything else – and more investment in the right places (decently sized social housing) could rebalance things nicely and dramatically improve wellbeing.

But beyond this we badly need to get out of a manufacturing mindset, both in the private and public sectors.  We should not view division of labour and specialisation as the ideal form of organisation (massive call centres, and so on), and we should value listening skills much more – I nearly wrote “communication skills” but most people understand this about getting over what you want to say, not understanding what your customer or service user actually needs.  This is happening only very slowly.

So I would add a third priority: education.  We need to greatly expand the teaching of life skills at school and elsewhere.  This would not only help build the skills that tomorrow’s economy needs.  It would help people make better choices in a changing world.

 

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