Lara Prendergast

Could Brexit solve the housing crisis?

Could Brexit solve the housing crisis?
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It is, at times, unclear that George Osborne is aware that the under-30s are voting in this EU referendum. When he talks about house prices plummeting post-Brexit, he talks as if this will strike fear into everyone’s hearts. For older people seeking to downsize, this might be true – but for almost everyone else, it’s not. And when I hear the In side arguing that we should all be terrified of Brexit because it will cause house prices to fall, I can’t help but wonder if this is the best single reason to vote ‘out’. For most people my age, one of the worst changes in Britain has been the way property prices have spiraled out of control – indeed, how the economic system is conspiring against my generation. If Brexit can change that, then we might be interested.

It’s not just Osborne, either. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, has also made the point, saying that Brexit could have a ‘material economic impact’ meaning falling house prices and rising interest rates. Heaven forbid! Not only would house prices be more affordable, we might get interest on our savings as we build up a deposit. The ratings agency Moody's has said that first-time homebuyers would benefit from a vote to leave the EU, because a fall in house prices would make it more affordable for people trying to get on the property ladder for the first time. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, also warned recently that a vote to leave the EU could precipitate a stock market crash and steep fall in house prices. For those in their twenties, who tend not to have many shares, this sounds like a pretty good trade-off.

I live in London, the world capital of crazy house prices. A two-bedroom former council house in Hackney costs around £600,000; the average salary here is around £30,000. But in Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh the stories are similar: huge house prices, at dizzying multiples of your salary. When David Cameron became Tory leader, house prices were much lower than they are now. And while there was froth in the 1980s, Britain has never seen anything resembling the asset boom that exists today. The basic British dream – education, job, house, life – has been smashed for my generation.

A few years ago,  a piece of graffiti existed in east London that summed it up: ‘Sorry, the lifestyle you ordered is out of stock.’ And that’s what it feels like for my age group. You can work hard at school, get a good degree, even land a job paying a decent wage. But nowadays this isn’t enough to make the next step: buy a house. A new divide is being built: between those who have to rely on their earnings (and get nowhere) and those whose family have benefited from the asset boom, and can get on the property ladder. Even those who do have family help find this system unjust.

For years, we’ve been told that this was some kind of economic blip: a freak event, an aftershock of the crash. But this ‘blip’ has been going along for some time. This hideous economic system, where there’s no point in saving and no hope of buying, looks like the new normal. This is the zero era, the consequences of having interest rates nailed to the floor. At first, it was seen as an emergency. Now, the Chancellor is warning that if we vote for Brexit then interest rates will rise. It’s like those inside of the gated wall of property ownership want to keep their wealth (and cheap borrowing) for as long as possible.

Few young people talk about house prices these days; instead, we bang on about rental rates. But if you want proof that we do care about housing, and can be rallied when needed, take this example. Vicky Spratt, a journalist of a similar age to me who works for The Debrief, a website for young women, has begun a campaign to ‘make renting fair’. Her petition to ban letting agency fees has so far received over a quarter of a million signatures. I’d be willing to bet a lot that a large proportion of the people who signed would be delighted to see house prices fall. 

Perhaps they wouldn’t all traditionally support Brexit - but desperate times call for desperate measures. If you can’t ever see yourself buying a property, and the Chancellor tells you that your vote in the EU referendum may give you the opportunity to change that, it may seem tempting. Vote leave, and solve the housing crisis. Vote leave, and finally change the economic system that has kept you outside. Would you blame us for voting for drastic change?

Even first-time buyers may hope for a crash. If you’ve saved enough to buy a £200,000 property, and your next move is a £400,000 one, then you’d have to borrow the difference. That’s real money. But if the market falls by a quarter, then so does the sum you have to borrow. It’s within the interests of anyone trading up (or expecting to) that prices fall. And the interest rates? Even Osborne's worst-case scenario shows the Bank of England refusing to raise rates, because (as most economists agree) central banks tend not to do so during times of economic distress. And even if banks do raise rates on their own volition, the Treasury admits they'd be unlikely to do so by more than 1 per cent. So: cheaper houses, bargain mortgages. What's not to like?

Of course the reason why Osborne and Lagarde think talking about house prices is a good idea is because they are relying on an ageing population for whom a house price crash wouldn’t be good news. If older people famously get out to vote, younger people famously don’t. And so far, the EU referendum debate has been characterised by the same dreary middle-aged men sniping at each other non-stop – it’s hardly going to get younger voters excited.

But it is about time that younger people were brought into the discussion, and I think Osborne has, inadvertently, hit upon something that could engage us. Having found the debate fairly uninspiring so far, I have yet to decide which way I will vote. But if Brexit would end the way the housing market is rigged against the young, then it may just be the only chance my generation will get to level things out. 

Should Britain Leave the EU?

The Spectator returns with a second Brexit debate on Tuesday 14 June at Westminster’s Emmanuel Centre. As the referendum date looms closer, the polls are neck and neck and tensions are running high. As the campaign enters its final stages, join Andrew Neil for a debate with leading voices from the Leave and Remain camps. Hear from speakers including Suzanne Evans of Ukip, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan and former Conservative foreign secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind. For more information and to book tickets, click here