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The Guardian view on Britain’s renters: neglected and cash-strapped

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Britain’s prolonged house price boom, described on Wednesday by market analysts as “gravity-defying”, shows little sign of letting up. According to data released from Nationwide, average property values rose by 0.9% in November alone. Since the first lockdown in March 2020, they have risen by almost 15%, driven by booming demand, limited supply and pandemic-related lifestyle changes. Shelter has estimated that the average first-time buyer in England will require a dauntingly high household income to raise a deposit.

Adding fuel to the fire, successive Conservative governments have sought to make the housing ladder more accessible through help-to-buy schemes, which have contributed to the surge in prices. But for the millions of Britons who will never come close to earning enough money to own a home, insecure rented accommodation has become a way of life. As the supply of social housing has steadily dwindled, their interests have been grievously neglected. Yet, as Labour’s former shadow housing minister Lucy Powell has pointed out, promoting home ownership should be compatible with looking after the interests and welfare of renters. This week, perhaps more surprisingly, that argument was echoed by the former prime minister Theresa May.

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In a foreword to a report by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a centre-right thinktank, Mrs May acknowledged that the historic Tory focus on home ownership “has at times distracted from what should be our overwhelming priority as Conservatives: ensuring that everyone has a decent, affordable and secure home”. The CSJ report, entitled The hidden housing crisis, exposes the dark underside of Britain’s buoyant property market. The dearth of available social housing, which began with the 1980s sell-off of council stock, has led to a boom in the private rented sector. Low-income families – who once would have lived in council accommodation or a housing association home – are struggling to get by as a result. One in five households now rent privately, compared to one in 10 in the 1980s; of those, almost half find it “fairly or very difficult” to pay their housing costs. A large proportion spend more than 30% of their disposable income on rent, making it a key driver of in-work poverty. The decline in cheap social housing stock, the report concludes, has culminated in a collapse in the supply of decent affordable homes for people living on modest to low incomes. Soaring levels of rough sleeping and sofa surfing are a byproduct of a dysfunctional sector.

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As a member of Conservative governments that contributed to this dismal state of affairs, Mrs May bears her own share of responsibility. But the belated recognition of the extent of this crisis is welcome. It is also a sign of the times, as the Tory party reflects on the changed social composition of its support. Having polled extensively among first-time Tory voters in “red wall” areas, the CSJ recommends that an emphasis on building affordable rented housing should be a central part of the government’s levelling-up programme. Over two-thirds of “new Conservative” voters surveyed said that expanding affordable rented accommodation should be the top housing priority. They would be wise not to hold their breath. Since the 1950s, Conservative governments have seen expanding home ownership as a means of maximising the Tory vote at general elections. The nation’s stressed-out renters continue to pay the price.