16 February 2018

The Tories will pay a high price for failing to tackle the housing crisis


What does a statistician do on a day off? He goes to Rightmove, and makes himself ill by looking up the prices of his first London flat, in dear old Bow E3.

Because statisticians never take the day off, not really, I plotted the sales price for the property against time, which I’ve measured as the number of days from 26 November 1997, when the property was first built and sold.

The red dots show the price recorded at the Land Registry for each sale. We can see the flat has been sold five times between 1997 and 2014, marked with the red circles. The solid purple line is a best estimate of the linear trend in price over time.

At this point I was glad I’d sat down to perform the statistical calculations. In the 6,000 or so days since 21 Hewison Street E3 was built — from the dawn of New Labour to our current Brexit-obssessed days; that is, the span of my youth-to-middle-age; a mere breath — its value has risen at a rate of £35 a day. (And – of course! – my ownership coincided with the relatively flat change between the second and third sales.)

Now, I loved that wee flat — it was my first home in London. But (as you’ll see if you follow the Rightmove link at the top of this article) it was a very basic one-bedder which overlooked the storage area for the Roman Road market, meaning you were banged awake as the stalls were set up, in the early hours, three days a week — including Saturdays.

That ultra-basic flat, smaller than most bankers’ garden furniture, costs about three times as much today as it did when I bought it, a ridiculous surge in “value” over such a brief span of time. Were a time-travel trick to displace my early 30s self into 2018, I could no longer afford it, the home that gave me London.

No need to imagine a time-travel trick. I was out for dinner last night with friends from work — a leaving do; Lisa’s off to Switzerland. I sat with three people I’d help hire into the business — three young men and women, the early 30s versions of myself transplanted to 2018.

None of them owned a home, not even a grotty bedsit in London’s cheapest borough, not even in New Town Stevenage, built to give new homes and hopes to workers (and where our site is based). Renting in a house-share is their norm; their expectation. The tales of rogue landlords (“Oh sorry, we’ve sold the house, you need to move out next week”) aren’t the worst of it; heart-breaking to reflect on what this extended “student-digs” lifestyle causes them to lose without being aware of the loss. Projection, I suppose: but they don’t even know what they’re missing.

If they were just an anecdote — these people with PhDs in mathematical sciences from “good” universities, working in serious industry and as far removed from the media-studies yeah-but-no-but-like-whatever caricature of young people as possible — then their inability to even dream of buying a flat in London, in whichever borough plays the role of pregentrification Bow these days, wouldn’t matter. You don’t know Sanjit, Annie and Marion, after all, or Lisa, who is off to Switzerland in part because she’s given up hoping to buy somewhere in Cambridge.

But they’re more than anecdotes: they’re statistical evidence (which would please them, of course). Levels of home ownership have “collapsed” among 24-35 year olds in the last two decades: In London and the South-East it has halved. No Tory can claim to support a property-owning democracy while this situation holds. Build more homes; control immigration; expand the cities further; fiddle around with stamp duty: for these ideas to work, they’d need to have started decades ago. I suspect we’re past saving the future by now. Flat-sharing into your 40s, unless you have inherited wealth, is the new norm.

And not one from whose consequences the rest of us — the comfortably middle-aged property owners — will escape. There’s a reason Conservatives want people to own their own home, after all, which transcends the security of being independent of a landlord’s whims.

I asked my friends how they’d voted last year. Sanjit’s a Tory, but hard-working Annie and Marion, highly trained and usefully employed, said “Labour” without a pause for reflection. I wasn’t surprised, but I am fearful. Think what they’ll do when their generation puts a Marxist like Corbyn into power, eyeing up those assets we prize, those homes we once took for granted. What would be your instinct, if you’d never been able to buy a house, while the generation above you were getting richer by £35 a day, just by sitting in the home they refuse to let you afford?

Graeme Archer is a writer and statistician.