The avocado toast generation needs houses, not lectures on frugality

Rachel Cunliffe
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No amount of forgoing small luxuries is going to solve the housing crisis (Source: Getty)

The avocado toast generation just can’t catch a break.

On Tuesday, a contrarian estate agent published a report guaranteed to antagonise everyone under 40, claiming that a millennial couple could easily save up the £90,000 average deposit for a first home in London, if only they spent less on silly things like sandwiches and lottery tickets.

It is clear that this was not intended as serious research. For a start, the numbers were just way off. If giving up one night out a week will save £6,000 a year, that implies millennials regularly spend £115 on their weekly bash – plus £16 a week on lottery tickets, and £10 a day on shop-bought lunchtime sandwiches. Obviously, most don’t.

Read more: Why it's time to give millennials a break

The calculations were also carefully hedged to add up to what’s needed for an average London deposit after help from parents, with this additional boost amounting to nearly £30,000.

But publicity stunts aside, what this self-righteous report has done is throw the plight of first-time buyers back into the public spotlight, just in time for the Budget this coming Wednesday.

And it’s a plight the government – and the Conservative party more generally – needs to take seriously.

Homeowners traditionally lean Tory. Conversely, it’s hard to buy into the idea that hard work and responsibility get rewarded when half your income goes on rent and it’s impossible to save for a pension, while older generations enjoy momentous housing wealth.

The picture is stark. According to ONS figures, the median price paid for a house rose by 259 per cent between 1997 and 2016. Incomes only increased by 68 per cent, and the average house price is now eight times the average income. London is even worse. Take Camden, for example, where an average first property costs 19.6 times median employee earnings there.

No one (apart from publicity-hungry estate agents) is denying that the situation is dire. Unfortunately, Tories have generally preferred a message of personal accountability over tackling this systemic issue, and have ended up fuelling demand, with the Lifetime Isa and Help to Buy scheme.

Anyone who has taken a single economics lesson will know that, if more people want to buy houses than there are houses to buy, the price will rise. If people are somehow able afford the new cost, the price will just rise again, and so on, until more houses are built.

Is the government starting to realise this? Perhaps.

Communities secretary Sajid Javid at least seems aware of it, saying on Thursday: “I still hear from those who say that there isn’t a problem with housing in this country, that we don’t need to build more, that affordability is only a problem for millennials that spend too much on nights out and smashed avocados. It’s nonsense.”

He went on to point out that: “where once it would have taken an average couple three years to save for a deposit, it will now take a quarter of a century”.

Theresa May also promised to take “personal charge” of confronting the housing issue, and building is increasing. But it’s not happening fast enough.

The announcement yesterday that housing associations will be reclassified as private sector organisations, to take them off the government’s balance sheet and enable them to borrow more, is a good start for increasing social housing, but it won’t do much for aspiring first-time buyers.

Until we see more building, with updated construction methods and smarter uses of land, this problem isn’t going away. Whether it’s more commuter towns with high-speed transport links, 3D-printing modular homes, or introducing some kind of tax to disincentivise hoarding land without building on it, we need real, radical solutions to this growing crisis.

Millennials are not stupid. They may not all be aware of the exact figures, but they know they are struggling where their parents and grandparents did not. They can see that tinkering with subsidies will just make the problem worse, unless it is matched with a comprehensive house building programme.

This should serve as a warning to Hammond in next week’s Budget.

If he wants to win over millennials and save a future generation of Conservative voters, he needs to come up with something better than a bit more cash for Help to Buy. The survival of his party depends on it.

Read more: Communities secretary Sajid Javid has grabbed the housebuilding agenda

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