News 12th Dec 2023

From climate to housing - are big money donations holding back Britain's progress?

Rose Whiffen

Research Officer

Rose is a Research Officer specialising in political corruption. Her work covers issues of money in politics, lobbying, the revolving door and open governance. She was a key researcher and writer of Transparency International UK's 'House of Cards' report which explored access and influence in UK housing policy and contributed to other reports, such as 'Track and Trace', which explored Covid procurement. She's previously held roles at Democracy Club and Spotlight on Corruption, and completed an MA in Corruption and Governance from the University of Sussex.

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House of Cards


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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Recently, our research featured in Channel 4’s ‘The Great Climate Fight’  – a two part series looking at the issues holding back Britain’s fight against the climate crisis. It highlighted findings from our 2021 report ‘House of Cards’, which explored the factors that could be influencing the UK government’s housing policy. As we undertook this research, donations to political parties and politicians jumped out as we noticed a startling statistic. In the ten year period between 2010 and 2020, 80% of the political contributions made by the property sector went to the Conservative party. This represented over a fifth of the party’s total reportable donations during this period.  

At the time of the research, we argued that this reliance on one sector for income could be a constraining factor on solving the housing crisis, that it could risk policy being shaped in the interests of big donors and not the wider public. Channel 4’s documentary examined the government’s housing policy in relation to new builds and, in particular, why they are not demanding that they have higher energy efficiency; for example, by requiring heat pumps. Improving energy efficiency standards can only be seen as a positive thing – one that would benefit ordinary people by reducing their bills while reducing emissions. 

Now, two years later, we wanted to know if the patterns we found in our research were still true today. Is the Conservative Party still as reliant on the property sector for donations?   

Today’s analysis looks at the first six months of 2023, and so as it is a small sample size it should only be seen as a complement to our initial findings from 2021. Despite these caveats, we see that during the first half of 2023 an overwhelming majority of donations from the property sector are still going to one party– £3.4 million out of a total of £3.5 million. Again, this constitutes just under a fifth of all reportable donations to the Conservative party in 2023 – the same proportion as in our previous research. 


Why does this matter? Whilst there have been multiple attempts to reform housing policy in favour of homeowners and tenants such as the Freehold Reform Bill and the expansion to the Building Safety Levy, there are still ongoing issues. These range from residents stuck with flammable cladding, soaring rents in the capital and ongoing struggles for leaseholders. And the questions raised in Channel 4’s documentary about how to ensure our housing stock is more energy efficient and better insulated still stand.  

There will also be a general election in the near future (exactly when is not known), but at least by January 2025. Parties are beginning to form their policy platforms and draft their election manifestos. Given the issues discussed above many eyes will be focussed on each party's pitch when it comes to addressing the issues of housing in Britain.  

Our previous research showed the unsurprising pattern that in election years, donations from the property sector rise significantly – parties have to stock their war chest for the electoral battle after all…. And this fundraising is only likely to increase. In November 2023, the Government quietly passed an order to raise the cap on spending for political parties from £18.96 million to £34.1 million. Instead of enacting measures to take big money out of politics, this change will inevitably increase the demand for donations and the need to fundraise from wealthy individuals and companies.  

In a fair and clean democracy money should not buy policy outcomes. Politicians should instead always endeavour to make decisions in the public interest. The reliance of some politicians and political parties for donations of large sums of money, in this instance, from the property sector risks placing this principle under strain. All those suffering the consequences of the UK’s housing crisis – from tenants or leaseholders to people experiencing homelessness and those with insecure housing – need our politicians to be free to challenge vested interests not be indebted to them.