The changing rates of construction in England’s different regions could influence people’s voting behaviour
It is a truth generally underacknowledged that what we build shapes how people vote. The Economist magazine’s 3 April issue, however, did allude to this truth.
An article, titled ‘Barratt Britain’ gently played with the accepted notions of why the Conservative Party in the 2019 election successfully breached the Red Wall. These north England constituencies, once Labour heartlands, now present on a map less as a wall and more as a blue sea with islands of red in the denser metropolitan areas.
Central to the author’s thesis was how ‘the North’ has become a place where the quiet aspirations of a comfortable family existence – owning a home with a drive for a car, maybe two – have become far easier to access than in ‘the South’.
Clearly aware that this idyll echoes the Thatcher dream, the author contrasted this narrative of Conservative success with the very different but more popular notion of Labour’s failings. That narrative focuses on dilapidated high streets and a working class left behind by an increasingly metropolitan Labour party.
Any single narrative will almost certainly fail to capture the reasons behind the changing voting patterns in Labour’s former heartlands. It would require many co-existent narratives to explain an increasingly fragmented and complicated political landscape into which Brexit was tossed adding further complexity.
Interestingly though, the two narratives highlighted in the article both implicitly recognise a link between voting patterns and the built environment. This is not a revelation. It was said that all you needed to know about housing policy while George Osborne ran the Treasury was the argument that homeowners were more likely to vote Conservative. All policies promoted it, including those aimed at curbing the expansion of buy-to-let landlords.
As we look to the local elections, this invites consideration of how changes in the built environment might be playing into the local political landscape in the North?
Before thinking about the future, it is always wise to look at recent trends and how things stand today. When we look to jobs and economic activity relative to the rest of England, things are looking brighter than might have been expected in the North, given it is lighter in jobs that lend themselves to working from home.
Chart 1 shows how jobs have been more resilient in the north of England. This in part is due to a historically lower level of self-employment. This does not equate directly to employment, as people can have more than one job. But other indicators suggest the North has fared better on jobs than elsewhere in England.
The latest data drawn from PAYE employees, for instance, shows a smaller fall in employees in the northern regions, both among UK citizens and those from overseas. The payroll in the North dropped less than 2 per cent from in the 12 months from February last year. In London, the drop was 5.3 per cent, with a fall of almost 12 per cent among EU nationals.
Meanwhile, in the north of England the claimant count in the 12 months to February doubled, admittedly from a higher base than elsewhere. But in London the count trebled and in the rest of the South there was a 150 per cent increase.
Regional comparisons are tricky given the direct effects of the pandemic were not felt equally everywhere. That aside, some resilience within employment in the North may be structural. There are fewer younger workers – who were hit hardest – than in say London. There is also less self-employment. The North is also less reliant on service industries. Its lower population density may also have played a part.
One factor that helped the North was its economic trajectory when the pandemic hit, which appeared more buoyant than the South, particularly London. Changes in house prices tend to be a reasonable indicator of whether an area is on the up. And even before the pandemic they had been rising faster in the North than in the South. During the pandemic and lockdowns, as Chart 2 clearly shows, the North saw far bigger rises than elsewhere in England over the past year.
House price inflation indicates the desire to live in a place. It encapsulates numerous factors and represents a rise in land value, perhaps better thought of as the locational value. One clear advantage the North has is its more affordable house prices. This makes it attractive, particularly when people are freer, or more flexible, in where they work.
Another indicator of regional economic activity is the share of construction work being let to contractors. Construction is a signal of confidence in an area. Charts 3, 4 and 5 provide a view of how the flow of new work into various sectors of construction has been changing.
Chart 3 compares the broad regional shares of commercial contracts let by value in England over the five years 2011 to 2015 with the next five years. Chart 4 shows the residential contracts and Chart 5 the share of contracts for hotel, leisure, and sports projects.
The shift in the share of work from London to the South East, the Midlands, and then the North is quite clear in commercial sector work. This reinforces the view that work tends to kick off first in London following a recession and then flows out into the regions as confidence and economic activity rise more widely.
We also see residential work flowing out of London, with the North picking up a larger share. This again is a sign of growing confidence. Certainly, schemes such as Help to Buy, have favoured home-building and home-buying in the North more than in the South.
However, a rebalancing of work towards the North is not evident in every sector. Work across the hospitality sector seems to have boosted activity in the Midlands more than elsewhere. This makes sense if we consider the work needed in preparation for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Taking a broad spread of data, the picture painted is one where the North appears relatively more buoyant than the rest of England, especially London, although it starts from a lower base.
And its buoyancy comes through in spades in one of the curiosities of the pandemic: a boom in home-improvement activity, which reversed what appeared to be clear signals of decline in 2019. Nowhere was the surge in home improvement more evident than in the three northern English regions. This would not have been such a surprise if we had expected the large leap in house prices, which is a major driver of home improvement.
The Home Improvement Report from Barbour ABI, due to be released later this month, will show that the number of planning applications for home improvements grew fastest in the North West, up 11 per cent in 2020. Yorkshire & Humber saw the second fastest rise at 10 per cent, while numbers grew more than 7 per cent in the North East, which was third on regional rankings for growth. This was against a 3 per cent rise across Britain as a whole.
Intriguingly, in the North West it was the towns with industrial heritage, such as Oldham and St Helens, that saw the biggest rises. In the North East, the pattern was different. North and South Tyneside, which offer easy commuting into Newcastle, blossomed most vibrantly. In Yorkshire & Humber, home improvement activity was patchier, buoyant in big cities, such as Leeds and Bradford and in rural locations such as Hambleton, the district that runs north from York.
The report also shows that the multicultural metropolitans and the cosmopolitans that inhabit the more densely populated parts of Britain’s cities slipped out of the driving seat when it comes to home improvement.
For many smaller architects up and down the UK, especially in the North, this may be no surprise. For the construction sector overall, it may be just a further indication of change afoot. The good news, if things pan out as normal, is that these applications will feed work into the sector for some while yet.
For construction as an industry in the North, things may not be better in absolute terms, but they are relatively better than in many other parts of the country and probably far better than might have been feared.
Returning to the exam question, how will developments in the built environment play into the political landscape of the North?
Firstly, there will be much that those in power can to point to as success, even if that success is relative to the south and London.
However, within the regions of the North, the benefits, particularly in terms of greater home improvement, are unlikely to be evenly spread across the population. Meanwhile, rising house prices clearly favour those already in homeownership – the better off.
So most benefits will have accrued to those who were more secure at a time when it is widely accepted that pre-existing inequalities were greatly exposed and widened by the pandemic. The divide between voters may well have sharpened.
This will make the debate far tougher for politicians on the stump. Do they appeal to aspiration among those in relative comfort or do they point to the increasing deprivation that will flow from the pandemic and will need to be addressed with vigour?
Which appeal garners most votes may well shape the emphasis given to construction and the built environment in future. After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that how people vote shapes what we build.