As we approach the General Election on 7 May, the think tank Centre for London looks at the big issues shaping electoral politics in the capital. By Dan Hartropp.
In last week’s article, Lewis Baston looked at whether London MPs are different from their colleagues in the rest of the UK. We learned that London MPs (and inner London MPs in particular) are a little more liberal than the average — and that they don’t like to talk about Wales (or bankers’ bonuses).
In this article, we will look at housing — an issue that affects all parts of the country, but one where the impact is felt particularly acutely in London. According to Ipsos Mori research presented at a recent Centre for London event, Londoners are more than twice as likely to cite housing as a key electoral issue than voters elsewhere. We will look at how frequently London MPs talked about (or asked written questions about) housing rather than at voting patterns, because, as Lewis explained last week, the strong impact of party whips makes meaningful analysis of most parliamentary votes tricky.
Let’s start with a few facts.
- London MPs talk about housing more than MPs from other parts of the country.
- Inner London MPs talk more about housing than MPs from outer London.
- London MPs are raising housing less than they were at the time of the last general election.
The first two facts are perhaps not that surprising. Housing demand has outstripped supply in London for many years, and buying a home has become increasingly unaffordable for Londoners, particularly in central London, so of course London MPs (and inner London MPs in particular) should be raising the issue in parliament. But let’s look a little more closely at how much more London MPs talk about housing… The map shows how often each MP mentioned housing in parliament since 2005 — the darker the colour, the more mentions.
The darker areas are clearly concentrated in the middle of the map, but the size of this effect becomes much clearer when we look at the results for inner and outer London side by side. The darkest constituencies on the map include safe seats in desirable postcodes — Conservative stronghold Kensington is the hub of prime property investment, which is having a profound effect on its community, while Labour’s Islington North has social housing enthusiast Jeremy Corbyn as its long-standing MP.
But there are also key marginals where housing is unsurprisingly high on the agenda: Old Southwark and Bermondsey and Brent Central, both Lib Dem seats (and as we’ll see, Lib Dems are especially keen on discussing housing), and Labour’s Wesminster North are all major battlegrounds. Those dark spots away from the centre have their own unique circumstances — Bob Neill in Bromley is a former DCLG Minister involved in Green Belt policy, while Greenwich’s Nick Raynsford has had a career as one of Parliament’s housing specialists. Broadly speaking, when we compare inner and outer London to the national average, we find that while outer London MPs raise housing more often than MPs from other parts of the country, the difference is not that large.
But inner London MPs raise housing more than twice as much (on average) as outer London MPs, which clearly shows the importance of housing to inner London MPs (and their constituents).
But how has that level of importance changed over time? Let’s return to the list of facts we started with. London MPs are raising housing in parliament less often than they were when this parliament started, back in 2010.
In fact, the chart shows a distinct pattern of two halves when we look back over the last two parliaments. The figures show the number of times that London MPs raised housing in each year — either in a speech in the main chamber of the House of Commons, or in a written question. There is a steady increase between 2006 and the peak in 2011 (at nearly 500 mentions) — perhaps due to the introduction of the Government's housing strategy and localism acts in November of that year, followed by a sharp decline in 2012 and a further drop in 2014. Despite becoming more and more of an important issue for Londoners during this parliament, these concerns have not, since 2011, been reflected by our MPs' speeches.
Interestingly, the national pattern shows the decline in interest starting earlier — amid the economic downturn and lower property prices of 2008 — but the effect is less severe than in London.
One of the advantages of analysing what MPs talk about (rather than how they vote) is that we can get a much deeper level of understanding of how a particular topic is seen. In this case, we don’t have to be content with a superficial look at housing in general, we can look more deeply at each of the main housing tenure types — owner occupied, private rented, housing association and council housing.
What patterns do we find when we look at how often each of these tenure types is discussed in parliament? Well, across all tenure types, outer London MPs follow a very similar pattern to the national average, but all tenures are much more talked about by inner London MPs.
This is most pronounced when it comes to discussions on the private rented sector. Private rental has a bigger share of the housing market in London than elsewhere in the country (as this report from Shelter (PDF) shows), but even so the difference in the levels of interest is stark.
On the face of it there isn’t a huge difference between the inner and outer London percentage of private rental tenants, (31.5% in inner, 23% in outer, in 2013). But the sector is growing much faster in central London, so it is unsurprising to see it so high on the agenda. Similar patterns emerge, though to less stark degrees, for discussions on council housing, owner occupiers and housing associations.
Finally, given that general election coverage seems to be reaching fever pitch, I thought I would finish with a quick look at how often housing is mentioned by each of the political parties that represent Londoners in parliament.
The Liberal Democrats come out on top, once we take account of the relative size of each party. The chart above uses data from the last 10 years and the figures represent the average number of mentions per MP. So it indicates more than just the original mansion tax proposal, which was a Lib Dem policy proposal during the early part of this Parliament, and would have been particularly London Lib Dem MPs.
So what are we to make of all this?
Clearly, housing in general — and the private rented sector in particular — is a big issue for inner London MPs. If we assume that the number of times an MP raises an issue is a reasonable indicator of how much they (or their constituents) care about it, then housing is an even bigger issue in inner London than the headline statistics would suggest.
But if you live in outer London, I suspect you might want your MP to be raising housing a lot more than the national average. If that is how you feel, then this is the perfect (and in fact only) time to do something about it. If it hasn’t started already, you are about to be bombarded with literature, phone calls and visits from political parties over the coming few weeks — let them know what you think. If you really want to put them on the spot, ask them why, when housing has become such an important issue for Londoners, London’s MPs are talking about it less than they were before the last election.
Featured image by Fred Adams from the Londonist Flickr pool.