Nick Downes: Will it be housing that unites Britain after Brexit?

Written by Nick Downes on 22 February 2019 in Opinion

People are getting increasingly frustrated that Brexit is distracting politicians from the issues that really matter - such as housing.

For the past five years, my work has taken me to all corners of the UK to conduct polling and focus groups with the public on some of the most pressing issues facing the country: NHS,  social care, crime, and of course Brexit. While each has its own set of knotty issues to untangle, there is a common thread that runs through all of these discussions. We are a divided country. 
Divided on the issues of the day, but more importantly, participants in my focus groups describe a deeper sense of inequality and unfairness that cuts through age, gender, geography, class and education. There is also a strong sense of lack of voice. 64% of the British public self-define as “have-nots”, and consistently we find that people feel that they, and the challenges they face are overlooked. For many, the Government is not interested in their problems, and focuses its efforts elsewhere – on the elites, on already prosperous part of the country or on the less deserving who know how to ‘play the system’. 
Brexit is of course central to this debate, but, against the backdrop of increased fragmentation, it’s important to understand that Brexit is a symptom not a cause. This widespread sentiment had taken root long before Boris Johnson took his red bus on tour. 
Now, though, Brexit is seen less as a solution to the nation’s ills, and increasingly as part of the problem. In recent focus groups, participants have expressed extreme frustration that the Brexit process is distracting politicians from the issues that really matter to them and which feel far more tangible. Indeed, our most recent polling showed that 73% of the public agree that ‘Brexit has seriously hampered our ability to deal with other major issues facing the country’.
This is a view that was reinforced through our recent work for Shelter’s Housing Commission. While Brexit may remain at the top of the national agenda, housing is a key issue for many, and yet it’s an issue they see no sign of being resolved.   
Across the breadth of our research for the housing charity - polling, in-home “ethnographic” interviews and deliberative workshops – we repeatedly heard tales of our country’s worsening housing crisis from a diverse range of people.  
After listening to the views of thousands of people, it’s clear the crisis is highlighting new pockets of housing need: young people and families struggling to get out of expensive, low quality, rented accommodation; older people worried about their housing security as they move into retirement; and last but not least the dramatically increasing rates of homelessness seen by many as a symbol of the failing public realm. 
All around the country our research confirmed how vital decent housing is to people’s physical and mental health, wider well-being, ability to find work and capacity to plan properly for the future. It also showed us what people value most in housing. 
As well as crucially important practical considerations such as fair and affordable rent and properties in good physical condition, people also identified the need for security – this matters so much in creating the sense that your house or flat is a home. As one low-income private renter said “how can I manage a rolling contract with kids? It keeps me awake at night. This just isn’t a home”. While another renter said “it can just be taken away at any time. It’s a lot of stress knowing that you’re going to be on the move again.”
Our findings also highlighted the role that decent, secure housing can play in bringing a community together. For many, the dream is still homeownership, but greater availability of social housing can clearly help create a cohesive community.  Social housing tenants are significantly more likely than private renters to feel part of their local community – 63% against 39%. They are also much more likely to agree that the people in their neighbourhood work hard to improve the local area – 55% against 33%.
Social housing may not be perfect but its biggest problem, as we found and Shelter’s commission concluded, is that there simply isn’t enough of it. The commission identifies a shocking 3.1 million households in need of a secure social home. They break this down into three key groups:
1.27m homes for those defined as “in greatest need” which includes homeless households and those living in overcrowded or hazardous conditions 
1.17m homes for younger, trapped renters who cannot afford to buy and face a lifetime in expensive private renting 
691,000 homes for older private renters who are struggling with high housing costs and insecurity into retirement.
Brexit has highlighted deep-rooted inequalities that have existed for many years. Although, as the Prime Minister is acutely aware, 8 out of 10 of us want to see “the country come together” it is hard to see how that can happen – unless these inequalities are addressed. 
Shelter’s commission strongly suggests that building more social homes has critical role to play in healing our country’s divisions. Whatever direction Brexit takes us in, our research shows us that the Government could do a lot worse than starting by making housing a priority. 
Nick Downes is associate director at BritainThinks

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