Is intergenerational equality achievable in property?

David Churchill, partner at Carter Jonas, looks at the challenges faced by younger aspiring homeowners and how, unfortunately, 2024 is unlikely to be any different for them.

Related topics:  Property,  Housing,  FTB
David Churchill | Carter Jonas
2nd January 2024
Question 901
"For first-time buyers and would-be homeowners, the challenges of getting onto the property ladder have never been greater, and yet the young are significantly under-represented in the planning system"
- David Churchill - Carter Jonas

The younger an individual, the greater their stake in the future. And yet younger voices are often notably absent from engagement on planning decisions.

Much of the criticism levelled towards the amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill is that it was altered to reflect the demands of MPs trying to appease small groups of constituents opposed to development (predominantly wealthy, home-owning, older individuals). The force and impact of pressure from these groups raise concerns about the lack of diversity and multi-generational voices in the system and an imbalance of power.

The over-65s have been the main beneficiaries of several decades of house price escalation, and, according to sources, own £2.587 trillion in housing wealth. Conversely, 41 per cent of 20 to 34-year-olds have no property wealth according to the Intergenerational Foundation. The generational divide is at the very heart of tensions around housing.

In the UK, the average home is worth £296,000 and the average household disposable income is £31,400. So, buying a home costs a typical household 9.4 times their annual income, up from 3.5 in 1997.

Unsurprisingly, the average age of a first-time buyer in the UK is steadily creeping upwards. Just 38% of 25 to 34-year-olds are homeowners, down from 55% a decade earlier, according to Ministry of Housing Figures, and the average age of first-time buyers has risen from 31 to 33 over the same 10 years.

For first-time buyers and would-be homeowners, the challenges of getting onto the property ladder have never been greater, and yet the young are significantly under-represented in the planning system.

According to the Local Government Association, the average age of a councillor in 2022 was 60 years and just 16 per cent were aged under 45, while 42 per cent were aged 65 or over. With planning committees requiring a certain level of experience – as well as time – I have no doubt that the average age for a planning committee member is higher still.

Although this lack of political engagement seems to encompass democratic involvement at all levels (in the 2019 general election, only 54.5 of the 18-24 age group voted, compared to 78.5 in the 65+ age group, according to the British Election Study), housing is the single factor most likely to encourage young people to vote.

Research by the Land Promoters and Developers Federation (LPDF) asked 1,885 people aged 35 and under their views on housing, home ownership and voting intentions. It found that part of the reason why young people are disengaged in politics is because they are disenfranchised as non-homeowners.

Interestingly, it also showed that housing is the factor most likely to determine voting intention in the coming general election: it showed that more than 64% of respondents favoured a party that ‘prioritises affordable home ownership for young people’ and these votes were surprisingly transferable: 41% of Labour voters under 35 would be more inclined to vote Conservative if the party adopted policies to increase the affordability of housing.

Similarly, 55% of young Conservative voters indicated they would be more likely to vote Labour if the party were to ‘adopt a clear drive to make housing more affordable for young people’.

So it’s a ‘chicken and egg’ situation: engagement in politics and planning, necessary to influence housing policy, requires home ownership; currently with low levels of homeownership among young people, the young are unable to meaningfully influence this change.

An interesting potential solution is to encourage the reverse: to take the politics out of planning. In March, Carter Jonas hosted a round table for The Whitehall Group, a forum of the Cambridge University Land Society.

The discussion was centred on the Group’s report A Vision for the UK Housing Market which, among its recommendations, states, ‘Political, policy and planning constraints on new building should be reduced, for example, through changing the geographies that local planning committees oversee. If planning committees were forced to serve local areas other than their own, then politically motivated decisions and NIMBYism could be reduced’.

The white paper makes a further, even more, radical suggestion: ‘We must accept the associated opportunity costs, for example, we cannot improve intergenerational inequality without shifting resources from older to younger generations.’

This ties in with Keir Starmer’s statement that in freeing up Green Belt for development, he could build more houses and in doing so, house prices would come down, rather than up. This comment raised many eyebrows, with commentators suggesting that committing to reduce the value of the homeowners’ most precious asset was electoral suicide.

But this assumption ignores the potential votes from the growing non-home-owning demographic who might if encouraged to vote at all, be inclined to vote for a party committed to lowering house prices.

So, in terms of planning policy, the battlelines for the next general election have clearly drawn: a youth vote in favour of more development, including a sensible approach to the Green Belt, and lower house prices, versus a not-in-my-backyard, leaning towards little change in land use and little change in housing policy.

On this basis, I anticipate a higher-than-average younger voter turnout and a very lively run-up in the next general election.

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