News 15th Jul 2021

Exploring access and influence in UK housing policy

Steve Goodrich

Head of Research and Investigations

Steve is Transparency International UK’s Head of Research and Investigations. He is responsible for managing TI-UK’s research unit and is our specialist on lobbying accountability, party funding and open governance. Before joining TI-UK in May 2015, Steve worked as a Senior Policy Adviser at the Electoral Commission. He has over five years’ experience working on political finance regulation, legislation and data.

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Everyone needs a home, yet finding one that will not bust the bank is a perennial problem for citizens across the UK. Whether it is to rent or to buy, the cost of basic accommodation forms a substantial part of households’ take home pay. While other developed economies suffer from similar symptoms, the problem here is particularly acute. Recent studies put the UK as the seventh most expensive out of a group of 40 industrialised nations, with over one in five renters overburdened by the cost of keeping a roof over their head. For many, the global pandemic has only increased the precariousness of their living arrangements.

Whilst the causes of this crisis are hotly contested, its persistence is undisputed. Across both large cities and rural idylls, buying is an elusive dream whilst renting remains an expensive drain on income. And over time the problem does not seem to get better, with spending on this essential item becoming increasingly unaffordable for large swathes of the population.

It is the stubbornness of this crisis that triggered this report. As we have seen over the last year, faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges the state can make bold interventions in favour of the public good. This then raises the question: why could not the same be done to make housing more affordable for all?

Because politics is the art of managing limited resources, those elected to high office must weigh-up competing demands on their time and the public purse. Yet the factors informing ministers’ judgements seems much underexplored.

This research reviews the available evidence to provide a greater understanding of potential factors influencing the UK government’s housing policy. It does so by exploring three questions:

  1. Is there a radical imbalance in access to government amongst interest groups, which could indicate ministers and their officials only hear one side of the argument?
  2. What avenues are there for potential undue influence over the development of housing policy?
  3. How meaningful are the current arrangements for providing transparency over those who access and seek to influence the government?
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Everyone needs a home. Whether you’re rich or poor or somewhere in-between, having warmth and a roof over your head are some of the most basic necessities in life. Yet for many, securing a place with security of tenure at an affordable price proves elusive – a fact recognised by successive governments.

Whilst the causes of this crisis are hotly contested, its persistence is undisputed. And over time the problem does not seem to get better, with spending on this essential item becoming increasingly unaffordable for large swathes of the population.

It is the stubbornness of the housing crisis that triggered our latest report. As we have seen over the last year, faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges the state can make bold interventions in favour of the public good. This then raises the question: why could not the same be done to make housing more affordable for all?

This research reviews the available evidence to provide a greater understanding of potential factors influencing the UK government’s housing policy. It does so by exploring three questions.

Is there a radical imbalance in access to government amongst interest groups, which could indicate ministers and their officials only hear one side of the argument?

Although we find there is a fairly open door in Whitehall to a wide range of groups, there is a notable absence of tenants at the table. While this might not be intentional, it is conspicuous given that private renters alone make-up just under a one in five (5.4 million) of all households in Great Britain. Additionally, an apparent inequity of resources gives some interest groups an upper hand when responding to the whirlwind pace of Westminster. While those with deeper pockets, such as industry groups, can respond faster to these shifting influencing opportunities, there are many who cannot, which inevitably affects the range and quality of representations made by those with less means at their disposal.

What avenues there are for potential undue influence over the development of housing policy?

This appears twofold. The frequency with which ministers and their civil servants change jobs creates a significant challenge to government’s institutional knowledge. There have been 10 secretaries of state and 18 housing ministers within the last twenty years, an astonishing rate of turnover. That would be less problematic were churn in the civil service not so high – around a quarter of all staff leaving the department responsible for housing within a year, according to previous research by the Institute for Government. Given the intractability of the housing problem and the need for longer-term thinking, it is deeply unhelpful that so many within the leadership and rank and file of government spend so little time in their post. Not only does this inhibit momentum for initiatives that could deliver long-lasting change, it produces an unhealthy reliance on the knowledge and experience of outside actors.

To compound this, the current party in government secures a significant proportion of its income from a small number of individuals and companies with a direct stake in the housing market. During a ten year period between 2010 and 2020, this sector accounted for one in five pounds of the party’s reportable donations, worth £57.8 million in total. Ten of these donors alone account for nine per cent of all the Conservative Party’s reportable donations in the last decade.

While we have seen insufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt any direct quid pro quo arrangements of donations for decisions, this dependence creates a real risk of aggregative corruption, whereby the actions of ministers are encouraged and incentivised by their financial ties to those with particular interests in this policy area.

How meaningful are the current arrangements for providing transparency over those who access and seek to influence the government.

Given access to information like this is a critical safeguard against potential impropriety, this is a key yardstick for the UK’s commitment to ethical standards. Yet when measured against some very basic standards, it falls lamentably short of the mark – a view shared by international experts and the UK’s own official ethics watchdog.

The scope of the UK’s statutory register of lobbyists is abnormally narrow compared to other countries, covering only about 0.3 per cent of those meeting face-to-face with government on housing issues. The register itself says no more than which clients they represent – adding little value to what is already in the public domain elsewhere. And the main means of revealing access and potential influence – departmental transparency disclosures underpinned by the ministerial code – are still lacking in quality, consistency and meaningful content to be a reliable source of information. Fundamentally, we know more about those seeking to shape planning decisions in rural Ireland than we do about interest groups bending the ears of ministers in Whitehall.

From reviewing this evidence we provide ten recommendations for change. These seek to:

  • Promote a more open and inclusive policy process, so government has a more holistic view of the issues it needs to address.
  • Remove the risks of undue influence, which may inhibit ministers and their officials from developing big and long-term solutions to solve the housing crisis.
  • Increase the transparency of lobbying in the UK, so there are fewer corners for impropriety to hide.

If adopted, these proposals should address public mistrust and help empower ministers and their officials develop the bold solutions needed to fix the UK’s broken housing market.