When we decided to do a Critical Mass Readers survey we had no illusions that it would be a rival to any of the major pollsters. We are not particularly interested in what the general population think. But we are interested in what you think. We are trying to tap into where the left is on some of the big issues facing us. For that reason when we get a low response rate it does not worry us too much.
So when Sir Keir Starmer said he would “back the builders, not the blockers” and allow councils to build on the green belt, we were sure our subscribers would have a view.
Overall, it’s fair to say that you weren’t keen on the idea. 57% of those saying no agreed that there were plenty of empty homes to use before we embarked on a house building spree. whilst 55% agreed that there was a potential for environmental damage. (Note: the follow on questions here were not strictly related to the question of building on the green belt as one or two people pointed out. An error on our part. Apologies.)
Amongst those who said yes 75% said that there was a shortage of housing in many areas, 50% that it would create a lot of new jobs (although Labour had a pledge to build 150,000 council homes in 2019, that pledge has been replaced in the current policy review by a commitment to create a home ownership rate of 70 per cent. According to the 2021 Census 62.5% of households owned the home they lived in) and 25% that it could give the economy a much needed boost.
It is likely that our readers are not quite like the average person. We would certainly hope so because the average person is the one who keeps voting for the Tories and their policies!
As we conduct these surveys we are building up a picture of what type of people you are – not individually because, unlike all those polling company panels, we have no interest in selling you anything, or selling your data on. We are interested in you as a group.
In this survey we asked about what kind of accommodation you lived in. This table shows the result and compares to the Census.
In some respects our readers are a fairly typical cross section of the UK population, with 61% in their own homes (compared to 63% nationally) and 39% in rented accommodation (compared to 36% nationally).
Amongst our renters 65% thought it was likely that they would struggle to pay the rent in the next 18 months. All of them felt it was unlikely (the vast majority very unlikely) that they would be able to buy their own home in the next 18 months. Financial hardship is not confined to our readers. According to figures from the Citizens Advice Bureau, rent arrears are the third most reported reason for calling their helpline. They follow, inevitably, fuel debts and council tax arrears.
We asked a series of attitudinal questions around housing issues and we anticipated that the responses might differ between those who were homeowners and those who were renters.
The table above shows the percent in each group agreeing with each statement. Logically, you might expect more difference than we found between homeowners and renters. But, remember, this is the view of a very specific sub-section of British society. Critical Mass subscribers are left-wing, proudly so. This, it seems trumps the sectional views one might expect within the general population. The only statements where there was any significant differences were those specifically aimed at prioritising home ownership over renting. I would prefer to runt than to buy, found a clear difference between the two groups with nearly four times as many renters agreeing. Similarly, roughly half the proportion of renters agreed with the statement ‘renting should be a steepping stone toward buying your own home’.
A couple of points here. First a technical one. In the paragraph above we use the term significant. Those with an interest in science will know that this is a term with very specific meaning scientifically. We do not imply here that our results are statistically significant, the word significant only in its ‘common sense’ use of the term. Secondly, we are not overly concerned to find differences between groups as the group whose views we are seeking are socialists, already marginalised and not needing us to make them more so. That is why we find it interesting that 88% of those who responded agreed that we should use empty buildings before embarking on new building projects. According to the latest data there were 479,000 empty homes in England, 14,866 empty homes in Wales and 43,766 empty homes in Scotland. A total of over half a million homes that are currently (as of 2022) empty. Those are homes that could be used to house those people currently seeking homes. Policy, as currently stated by the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Lib-Dems is centred on building more homes and creating a bonanza for building companies and mortgage providers. Perhaps you are right. The best way to save the green belt is not to build more homes but to use the empty stock that already exists. And, whilst renters are more keen on this than homeowners the fact remains that the best method of ensuring high quality homes for the rental sector is as 58% of you agreed for house building (or the avoidance of house building) to be in the public sector.
Where we see the biggest difference is when we ask questions that go to the heart of your status on the ‘housing ladder’. There is a clear difference when we asked how much you agreed with “Renting should be a stepping stone toward owning your own home”. Whilst only 22% of renters agreed, amongst existing homeowners the figure was 41%. This could be validation of their own past choices or that, like most of the population, they regard housing as a ladder on which the top rung is outright ownership. This is rather supported when we look at the results to the statement “I would rather rent than buy.” In this case 57% of renters agreed, whilst only 15% of homeowners.
Is there a conclusion to be drawn from this? Not an easy one. It does appear that many people, regardless of politics, aspire to owning their own home. Any party that wants to win an election must be seen to support that aspiration, as we are sure Starmer’s advisors are well aware. But, there are a significant number of people who are renting and prefer to rent. In supporting house building of any sort these two constituencies will need to be confident that their concerns are being taken into account. In reality, you do not need to promise to build more homes for people who already own one. That is why the assumption that people in rented accommodation see it as a stepping stone is important.
There are actually two elephants in the room here: cost and the environment. The problem in the housing market is not a lack of property, but of affordable property. As interest rates rise that will only get worse. But whatever we decide to do must be sustainable in the long-term. The green belt may not be as sacrosanct as some people like to think, but this debate is not really about the green belt it is about whose interests are prioritised: builders, banks and landlords or ordinary workers, tenants and those on low incomes. None of the mainstream parties have shown too much interest in anything but the first group, and as things stand, that will not change any time soon.
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Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.