14 May 2023

Weekly Briefing: Grown-up politics


For those who fear the UK is turning into Italy with worse weather and inferior food, this week’s ONS stats on household formation offered yet more evidence for the prosecution. For Britain has been steadily adding to its own stock of bamboccioni – young adults unwilling or, more likely, unable to flee the nest.

Between the censuses in 2011 and 2021, the number of adult children still living in the family home rose by 13.6% to reach a total just shy of 4 million. Over a quarter of adults aged 25-29 are living with their parents. (The fact the recent census took place in 2021 may have distorted the figures somewhat, but the ONS says this is a ‘continuing trend’ that can’t only be explained by the pandemic.)

While there are doubtless some who enjoy being close to their family and are in no rush to move out, it’s hard to see this as a positive development. Rather, it suggests an economy so dysfunctional that many young people are being forced into a prolonged adolescence at a time when previous generations were already taking their first steps to living independently.

This isn’t just about declining rates of home ownership – although the figures for 25-34s are gobsmackingly awful compared to a generation ago – but a rental market that makes moving out all but impossible for many young adults.

What’s most frustrating is that this hasn’t just been the Government asleep at the wheel, but an active policy choice. The last decade has seen a series of punitive tax changes and environmental rules combine to push landlords out of the sector. Few will shed a tear for these literal rentier capitalists, but landlords selling up does mean fewer rental properties, given that many properties are sold to existing owner-occupiers.

This is borne out by the English Housing Survey, which estimates that between 2018 and 2021 alone the number of homes available for rent fell by 500,000. Faced with a market of snaking queues and ferocious bidding wars, is it any wonder many young people are choosing to stick with mum and dad?

The Government is not so much ignoring these problems as actively exacerbating them.

It’s been quite the transformation: three years ago we had Boris Johnson’s radical White Paper, with its promise of ‘fundamental reform of the planning system’. Last week we had Rishi Sunak denouncing ‘top-down housing targets’ and accusing Labour of wanting to ‘concrete over the green belt’.

Now, all but abandoning already unambitious targets at the behest of backbench MPs is one thing. Doing so while running an immigration policy projected to bring north of 700,000 people into the country in a year is simply bonkers (and our Centre for Policy Studies colleagues reckon the figure for 2022 could be closer to 1 million). You don’t have to be Nigel Farage to see a basic issue of lots more demand chasing chronically insufficient supply.

The political strategy seems to be isosceles triangulation: rather than aiming for lots of different blocs of voters, you just put all your eggs in the 55+ homeowner basket and hope for the best. That might be understandable from a cynical electoral viewpoint, but surely younger Brits desperate to get on with their lives deserve a more grown-up politics?

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.