How could a Labour government de-financialise Britain’s housing market?

Some Labour leaders look at some houses. Image: Getty.

To end our crippling housing crisis we first need to dispel the myths about its causes. Housing costs haven’t soared simply because there “aren’t enough homes to go around”: this narrative is popular with anti-migrant campaigners and landowners/developers seeking to tear up planning red tape, but it is not supported by the data. In fact, the number of dwellings in the UK has grown faster than the number of households throughout the decades of house price inflation.  

House price booms and busts in the UK are explained far better by studying drivers of housing demand, than by looking for shortages of supply relative to housing need. Specifically, demand has been inflated by institutional changes – property tax breaks, Buy To Let mortgages, repression of tenants rights, and so on – that have encouraged the treatment of land and homes as financial assets.  

The result is that ordinary buyers have increasingly found themselves in a bidding war with landlords, speculators, second home owners, even international money launderers. Importantly, this bidding war has been fuelled by seismic deregulation of the UK mortgage market, which increased the supply of easy mortgage credit, and created a dangerous feedback loop between the finance and house prices.

One aim of our Land For The Many report, commissioned by the Labour party, and published today, is to explain how such inflationary forces can be brought under control.

We recommend major tax reforms to discourage the use of land and homes as financial assets and share out some of the eye watering unearned windfall gains from house price inflation.

We recommend measures to reduce to the exploitation and insecurity in the private rented sector – reforms that make sense on their own terms, but have the added benefit of dampening demand from Buy-To-Let landlords.

We recommend interventions by the Bank of England to reduce risky and inflationary forms of mortgage lending. We propose planning restrictions on holiday homes. And we recommend a total overhaul of the housing development model, so that builders compete on quality rather than on their ability to navigate the speculative land market. 

What stands in the way of such reforms is not just the power of vested interests, but a fear among policy makers that such reforms will trigger a house price crash. This is not an unreasonable concern: debt-and speculation-fuelled house price rises are always going to be vulnerable to reversal.

Any reform that makes housing less attractive as a financial asset could result in a sudden withdrawal of demand from investors, and potentially prompt some to try and sell. The resulting price drop could in turn make mortgage lenders more cautious about lending at high loan to value ratios, which would suck even more purchasing power out of the market, putting further downward pressure on prices. 

Although many aspiring homeowners would welcome a reduction in house prices, there are political and macroeconomic risks associated with falling prices that must be avoided. In particular, a house price crash would be punishing for households who bought for the first time at the height of the boom, and could push some into negative equity, making it impossible to move or re-mortgage.


On the other hand, a more timid approach to housing reform will leave a whole generation locked out of homeownership: it will take decades to regain a “normal” house price-to-income ratio if we merely slow the rate of house price inflation and wait for wages to catch up. 

Is there a way to reconcile the apparently conflicting interests of homeowners and non-home owners? In today’s report for Labour we float one possible way out of this conundrum. The proposal is to set up a new body – the Common Ground Trust – with three functions.

The first is to support people locked out of home ownership, who would approach the Trust when they have found a house they wanted to buy and ask the Trust to purchase the land underneath the house. The buyers would cover the upfront costs of the bricks and mortar only (which on average account for just 30 per cent of the price of a property), and then pay a land rent to the Trust. This would enable many more people with small deposits to enjoy a form of home ownership, and with it greater security and control over their living space, without taking on imprudent levels of mortgage debt. 

The second function is to facilitate the gradual transfer of land into common ownership, so that the associated unearned land rents can be pooled and distributed according to need, rather than captured by private landowners and banks at society’s expense.

The third function is to stabilise house and land values. If prices are falling too quickly, the Trust would bid slightly above market prices for the land, to slow the price decline. In other words, the Trust would be a lever for supporting stable and sustainable forms of demand in the housing market, to offset the withdrawal of volatile and socially damaging forms of demand. (Importantly, if prices were rising, the Trust would cease to bid at all, until government had brought the inflationary forces under control.)

The Common Ground Trust is an idea in early stages of development, but we believe it is a useful provocation. If we want bold measures to improve the lives of renters, tax property more fairly and avoid a violent house price crash, then we must develop a plan for deflating the housing bubble in slow motion. The Common Ground Trust is a solid starting point for that discussion.  

Beth Stratford is a PhD student, a fellow at the New Economics Foundation, a co-founder of the London Renters Union, and one of the authors of the “Land for the Many” report. You can read the whole thing here.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.