What is it?
The Conservative Party’s manifesto of November 2019 offered ideas on how Government could help more people buy a house:
- Encouraging financial institutions to create a ‘new market’ that makes it easier for people to take on mortgage debts at long-term fixed rates, and to ‘slash the cost of deposits’.
- Enabling local authorities to ‘use developers’ contributions via the planning process to discount homes in perpetuity by a third for local people who cannot otherwise afford to buy in their area.’
In February 2020, the Government published a consultation on the second of these policies: ‘First Homes’, offering a minimum discount of 30% on the house price set by the developer, with local councils having a freedom in principle to require a 40% or 50% discount. Every time the property is sold, the local authority would have to ensure the discount is passed on to a buyer who meets the eligibility criteria for a First Home at the time of sale. The Government published its response to the consultation findings on the same day (6 August 2020) as its White Paper, Planning for the Future, revealing proposals for drastic changes in regulating developers’ contributions, with increased central Government control through a nationalised levy system. The First Homes consultation response clarified that the Government wished to start with 1,500 First Homes as a pilot, within a much larger programme of ‘affordable’ housing.
Why does this matter?
In the Conservative Party’s own words –
“Home ownership is one of the most fundamental Conservative values. People are happier, more secure and more rooted in their communities when they own their own home – and know that they can pass it on to future generations. For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that home ownership is within their reach – that they too can have a tangible stake in society, can be rooted in their communities and have a place to raise a family. A majority Conservative Government will continue to increase the number of homes being built. But we must also rebalance the housing market towards more home ownership – while ensuring fairness for the new generation of renters.”Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto, 2019, p30, editor’s emphasis.
Some of these points echo Catholic Social Teaching:
“The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away”(Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 49)
“private ownership of property […] naturally entails a social obligation as well. It is a right which must be exercised not only for one’s own personal benefit but also for the benefit of others.”Pope St John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 19 and 58 respectively)
“Where the good offices of the State are lacking or deficient, incurable disorder ensues: in particular, the unscrupulous exploitation of the weak by the strong.”
The title of the party’s manifesto is ‘Get Brexit Done – Unleash Britain’s Potential’. In his foreword, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that, once the UK left the European Union, major new investment would arrive from overseas into the UK, while the Government would simultaneously become more selective about who could come to live in the country. The structure of the manifesto document separates the tasks of getting Brexit done from unleashing potential, but makes the latter dependent on the former. Indeed, Johnson pseudonymously describes the UK as a ‘lion trapped in a cage’ awaiting Brexit: an ironic image for the treatment of housing a diverse population. The manifesto quotation above goes further in making explicit the relationship between Brexit and ‘unleashing’, by blending and reinforcing apparent suggestions about who and what matters for development of persons, communities and land:
- Pre-Brexit immigrants and older people are less likely to unleash a ‘potential’ presumed to exist more among young UK nationals. Comment: This appears to be on a tightrope between talking about the right to acquire property and weighting Government intervention in a way that denies the dignity of some members of society on race and age grounds.
- Having a ‘tangible stake in society’ seems dependent on owning a building, not whether a person participates in societies that produce tangible expressions of life together. Housing tenure seems to be presented as more important to human development than uses of land and property. Comment: Catholic teaching upholds private ownership and distinguishes carefully between ownership and use. Property owners have the right of use, and are morally obliged to virtuous use for their own sustenance first and also for the common good.
- Quality of family, recreation and community depend on money (dues paid to the market) and power (a person’s economic value to the state). This echoes values presented in Britannia Unchained (2012), that families are failing in their civic duty if they do not realise the potential economic productivity of their children from the earliest age.
- ‘Ensuring fairness’ for renters is restricted to a ‘new generation’, though details later in the manifesto point to concerns for people of all ages: evictions, deposits and landlord behaviours.
Policy documents emerging in 2020 appear to confirm these perceptions, and seek to realise the concluding point in the manifesto quote above, that more centralised control is both what people want and the most effective means to enact the beliefs. But whereas the preceding Theresa May Government initially appeared to present housing as a top policy priority after Brexit, in the Johnson manifesto housing is relegated behind the NHS, social care, schools, flood defences, rolling out buses as good as London’s everywhere, and reinstating lost railway lines. These policies all presume a major increase in centralisation of planning and control in Government departments, over individuals’ and communities’ agency. Rhetoric about devolution – and by implication local agency – seems to be founded in a view of centralised permission-giving, rather than a polity and economy at the service of integral human development.
Such is the way in which the Government narrates what matters, and how it justifies the introduction and terms of its First Homes policy. It seems little more than a lollipop appeal to young, better-off voters on whose support, according to polling evidence, the Conservative Party could no longer count.
Centralised, fragmented tinkering by Governments of all hues over many decades has complexified housing policy, hindering a coherent appraisal over time, and opposing household formation, by reducing people’s agency to plan ahead and create their own solutions (cf. Mater et Magistra, 62-67; Holy See’s Charter of the Rights of the Family, Articles 9-11). It is notable that while the First Homes consultation included a brief assessment of equality impacts, there was no reference to the Family Test; ‘family’ appears only twice in passing references.
Who stands to gain and be excluded?
The First Homes policy unpacks beliefs about the differentiated worth of people by age and function, through adding definition to the manifesto idea. A socio-economic rationale of who is deserving of housing is implied by associations between ‘young people’, particularly those with ‘good jobs and secure prospects’, and ‘first time’. Those really deserving are further hinted at where the policy suggests that, ‘Councils could use this to prioritise key workers in their area, like police, nurses and teachers.’ These are occupations with national pay review bodies and for which the new government has national targets for additional recruitment.
‘Dream’ conveys another element of values extolled by policy makers: just as a dream is an individual experience, so the vision of a First Home ‘rooted in their communities’ conveys a narrow, extractive and passive half-life, which misses out or renders optional the essential human processes of belonging and participating in that community. This is a consequence of the Government’s reliance on centralism and the market to produce houses understood principally as commodities. But it is also perhaps based on an incorrect reading of English conservatism that ties an idealised vision of country house living with a curtain wall – leaving no obligation to give back excess wealth to a society that is presumed not to exist.
In the wider context for policy reform, what you do (and are paid) and where you come from matter more than who you are becoming as expressed in stable relationships. Under First Homes, the income cap is by default set to £90,000 in London and £80,000 in the rest of England, with local authorities having limited discretion to lower the cap. By contrast, the Office for National Statistics reports a UK-wide full-time average income of £36,611 in 2019 (part-time average £12,495). In First Homes, savings and other assets will not be taken into account, in part to relieve the burden on local authorities of collecting evidence, and to cater for those with high savings and low incomes. Policy towards non-UK nationals is pulling another way, as a separate manifesto commitment appears to extend elements of No Recourse to Public Funds: ‘People coming into the country from the EU will only be able to access unemployment, housing, and child benefit after five years, in the way non-EEA migrants currently do.’ First Homes is addressed to worthy citizens with good jobs and a ‘dream’ of home ownership, while people allowed into the UK by points, but who then experience the reality of poverty simply because of restrictions tied to their nationality, might be offered what is left after the First Homes quota has been met in new housing developments, in a diminishing supply of new social housing that is hugely oversubscribed. Owners of First Homes will also have the right to let out their home at full market rent from day one, for two years, or more if for example they have a relative or friend to care for, or in the event of relationship breakdown. In contrast, poorer people in social and private rented accommodation may expect to have no such entitlement.
The manifesto also proposed a new National Disability Strategy before the end of 2020, improving opportunities and access to housing. In contrast, the First Homes consultation published in February 2020 explicitly acknowledged that people with disabilities and older people may be less able to purchase First Homes:
‘Under some delivery scenarios there could be a negative impact on disabled people and people aged 55 and over. This is because disabled people are more likely to use other affordable housing tenures and because first-time buyers are more likely to be under 55.’First Homes consultation, February 2020, para. 85.
Who makes the discount financially viable?
Initially, the Government intends that councils would negotiate with developers to use some of their ‘Section 106 contribution’ to cover the discount. In other words, it is largely down to market forces, and against a common backdrop of resistance from many communities to new – especially denser – housing development. The Government acknowledges that prioritising First Homes in Section 106 agreements is likely to reduce the number of new affordable housing units available to people who are disabled and elderly.
The Government has noted that ‘A small number of respondents [to the First Homes consultation] also said that Government should require all First Homes to be constructed as accessible housing ensuring that disabled people can benefit.’ However, there is no indication from Government that this point is accepted; instead the Government appears to leave it to councils to work it out locally, demonstrating the continued relative low priority Government gives to social care vs NHS spending. Given the increased level of central controls and standardisation proposed under separate planning reforms, alongside Right to Buy, restrictions placed on housing associations and a lack of clarity on relationships between multiple government housing programmes, it is difficult to see how First Homes will empower local agencies for inclusive development.
It is more worrying still that the Government intends to introduce a mandatory exemption from the Community Infrastructure Levy for First Homes. The Levy is meant to contribute to the provision of local amenities serving the whole neighbourhood. First Homes is thus both a drain on communities and the taxpayer through the additional burdens on local authorities. A First Home discount, which could reduce community amenity gains in new development, comes free from any expectation of community participation by the beneficiaries, who also receive extra privileges (to be absent from the community) that may not be afforded to poorer neighbours and those in less stable housing tenures. By contrast, people applying for social housing will typically need to demonstrate specific community participation (this has a broad meaning and could include paid employment).
The Government has had the courage of its own convictions about extending home ownership, and in adding a national scheme into an already complex system of planning and development. It hopes that the rules for First Homes will make it easier for local young people to afford to buy a property close to where they live, thereby preserving communities and family ties. These should be positive ways of preserving communities of place and to reduce commuting. But as First Homes are to be a distinct form of housing tenure, they may create new, lasting forms of division between the relatively affluent – young and healthy – who are also therefore perceived to be more deserving of a lower house price, and the common good of everyone in a neighbourhood, whose quality of life depends in large part on shared amenities.
Finally, the Government claims that First Homes ‘will be life-changing for people all over the country aspiring to take their first step onto the housing ladder.’ Here we see that the English narrative of privatised but often poorly adaptable housing remains firmly entrenched in a divisive vision for communities. Beyond the initial missed opportunity of requiring First Homes to be accessible when built, those young people who can afford one are being given clear signals that they should aspire to take more steps on a ladder in future, and can expect to have to move on if their physical function diminishes.