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What an unnervingly viral map of housing data can tell us about UK politics

The extent to which mortgage-free owners influence the country is going to be one of the big political stories of the next few years, writes Jonn Elledge

Housing census data is not the kind of thing to set social media alight: there are no dances, no jokes, no slam-dunk put-downs of, say, violent misogynists by teenage climate activists.

But following last week’s release of new figures showing the state of the UK’s housing market, one map — showing the country a sea of blue, representing council areas where the most common tenure is “owns outright” — went unnervingly viral.

The first thing to say about this map showing the most common housing tenure across England and Wales, is it does not mean that a majority of people in those areas own their homes without a mortgage.

Survivors of school maths lessons may dimly remember, through their Rishi Sunak-induced trauma, that there are three types of average: this one is “mode”, meaning simply the most common.

In other words, the areas marked in blue represent council areas where there are more households whose properties are owned without a mortgage than any of the other possibilities (owns with a mortgage, private rented, social rented). And, because there are only these four options, it’s theoretically possible for one particular tenure to be the most common in an area, even if it applies to little more than a quarter of households.

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This map does absolutely not show that most British households are secretly mortgage-free owner-occupiers, presumably celebrating their good fortune by bathing in hot tubs full of champagne: it just shows that there are more of them than of any of the other options.

That does not mean that this group isn’t important, of course. It’s not only this map which uses a sort of first-past-the-post system, but elections to the House of Commons. What this map suggests is that there are many constituencies (a different geography to council areas, but nonetheless) in which there are a lot of mortgage-free homeowners whose voters are up for grabs.

These guys are likely to be older than the average voters, as they’ve had time not only to buy a home but to pay their mortgage off. They’ll also exist in a different economy to the rest of us. There’s a decent chance they’re retired, or at least nearing that state. So they’re less worried about economic growth than those who are still working, and less worried about interest rate rises too. They may, indeed, benefit from them in the short term, since they’ll also increase the yields on their savings. (They may not be so keen on any house price crash they happen to induce.)

The emergence of this “class” – because, let’s be honest, that’s what it is – has had a profound effect on British politics these last few years. It’s meant a group of voters, big enough to swing many seats, whose prosperity is tied to stability and asset price growth, rather than more old fashioned metrics like wage growth.

You can see its impact in the support for Brexit, which for a long time seemed disconnected from the economic damage it was doing; in the shift of traditionally Labour “red wall” seats, full of older voters, into the Tory column; in the genuflecting towards any NIMBY group, trying to prevent the construction of pretty much anything. But this group is, still, a minority, accounting for only a third of households across England and Wales. The extent to which its influence persists or wanes is going to be one of the big political stories of the next few years.

There are a couple of other things worth noting about this map. The red areas, where the most common tenure is “owns with mortgage”, dominate outer London and the commuter belt. That’s probably, despite the colour scheme, a pretty good map of the “blue wall”: instinctively Tory areas, where the shocking economic performance of the last few years could come back to bite the party of government.

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Then there are the much smaller areas where private rented (in green) or social rented (in yellow) accommodation is the most common tenure. These are the Labour heartlands of inner London, plus a few other inner cities or university towns. This feels like a pretty good map of areas where Labour has strengthened its hold over the last few years.

But there aren’t many of these areas: only 30 councils in the green, private rental-dominated column, and just 11 in the yellow, social rental-dominated ones. Combine those two, and it’s fewer than the 57 areas where householders with mortgages dominate; it’s a mere fraction of the 233 where the most common tenure is “owns outright”.

At risk of reading too much into a map showing a single variable, it feels like that might offer some insight into why, thanks to First Past the Post, both the Labour party and pro-European forces have struggled at the ballot box these last few years.

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future. 

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