Over the last few decades, here in the UK, we’ve become very good at pointing to apparent failure. Often despite considerable objective evidence to the contrary. Apparently we’re no longer any good at making things (compared to Germany and China, maybe, but not to most other countries), our armed forces are puny (compared to the US, maybe…), our energy supply is insecure, our public services are falling apart, the English Premier League is in a mess… Such angst is spreading elsewhere in the West, but somehow you rarely hear fundamental criticism of our political and economic system. You’d think the political process was merely flawed, a little unfair in places, perhaps, a little too tolerant of peccadilloes by the powerful, but basically sound, and very difficult to improve. Despite considerable objective evidence to the contrary.
We’re just now quite rightly much vexed over the issue of housing (warning, link is to page of all 865 comments, and counting).
The issue, in a nutshell, is the extent to which the state should pay to provide some people with a standard of housing higher than they can afford on the open market. The 1997-2010 Labour government (supported by at least the non-Tory controlled local councils, who have executive powers in area of housing), was quite enthusiastic about doing so, though in the main merely continued existing policies. As time has gone on, though, the provision of housing to some by the state has been a factor in driving those not eligible for, or simply not claiming, state support, into less desirable – smaller, and often, crucially, less conveniently located – accommodation. It should be noted that Labour’s attempts to increase the supply of housing over recent years has been effectively stymied by nimby campaigns, if not supported, then at least not effectively challenged by foot-dragging Liberal and Conservative local councils. Despite guilt all round, the new Coalition government has decided to address the problem, in part, I suggest, as part of their strategy of blaming everything on Labour. And in that regard, housing is pretty much an open goal.
As the debate continues, we see not one but two failings of our political system in stark relief.
The first failing is a confusion: are we making policy on the basis of reason or emotion? Let’s take people who aren’t working for whatever reason (unemployed, incapacitated or retired). Now, I’m not even going to argue this on the basis of rights. It simply makes no sense, as hundreds of bloggers have pointed out (to massive approval, judging by “Recommendation” statistics), for workers to commute in every day from the outskirts of conurbations such as London, whilst people who don’t actually need to live there are paid to do so by the state. Why, oh, why does Labour defend the indefensible? (Link to where Polly Toynbee explains the Coalition’s inhuman proposals – remember we’re essentially taking about a zero-sum game, here: what we give to one household, we deny to another).
But – there’s always a “but” – there are “priority cases” as a Councillor Timothy Coleridge (Tory, Kensington and Chelsea) explained on Radio 4 this morning trying to “soften” the policy. There’ll be a “transition fund”, we were told. He seemed to be particularly sympathetic to the elderly. So it seems we’re going to make value judgements.
It might be worth digressing at this point to note that gerrymandering is a factor, because of first-past-the-post local elections. Politicians want to keep their voters in their constituency and move the opposition’s out! I suspect the Tories see the elderly vote as key to their next few terms in office, so I was immediately suspicious of Councillor Coleridge. Any “prioritisation” must surely be done according to an objective, nationally applicable set of criteria. Trouble is, value judgements are why we’re here in the first place.
If the policy is to minimise the fiscal cost of housing benefit, and optimise the use of housing, then that’s what we must do.
Here’s a case of the same sort of thinking, from a letter to the Guardian, by an Ann Tobin:
“The house was lovely, built to Labour’s postwar housing standards (later abandoned by the Tories). Us kids grew up and moved on and my parents stayed there until my mother died in 1998, 50 years after they had moved in. My father died three years before her. Yes, the house was too big for her, but she liked to invite her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to stay.” [my stress]
This partly explains how we’ve reached the present situation. This identifiable individual (Ann Tobin’s mum) “liked” her big house, provided by the state. Meanwhile, there is a waiting list of millions of families for such houses. Maybe, because Ann Tobin’s mum was allowed to keep a house she liked, a family with a couple of school-age kids spent years moving about between emergency B&B accommodation to temporary lodgings. Maybe that family would have “liked” a house of their own. Because Ann Tobin’s mother has been allowed to stay in a family house, another family that can’t be precisely identified is living in poor or insecure accommodation. This is crazy. Housing supply is limited (though could be improved). Why is it so difficult for people to understand that because of that limitation one decision impacts on others? In areas with a limited supply of housing, its allocation is a zero-sum game. You can’t give some people a place they’d “like” without denying others the same thing.
To my mind what we’re witnessing is the complete failure of post-war housing policy in the UK. Council housing, for example, makes no sense. It locks in housing allocation at one moment in time, making no allowance for the changing world we live in. Or the changing size of individual families for that matter.
This brings me on to the second failing of the political system. Politicians see direct action by the state as the only way to achieve anything. So we’re told we have to build more social housing. Wrong. We simply have to build more housing, period. 100,000 private homes will house 100,000 households just as well as 100,000 social homes will. 100,000 fewer households will be waiting for housing in either case.
And in actual fact, over the last decade or so, demands for social housing have actually reduced the total provision of housing. Why? Because the main way social housing has been provided has been through Section 106 agreements with housing developers. In this daft system, housing developers have been given planning permission in return for including schools, hospitals or social housing in their schemes. And you thought schools, hospitals and social housing all came out of the health, education and housing budgets? This tax on developers, or first-time buyers, however you want to look at it, has the effect of reducing housing provision. At a given house-price level, building houses is less profitable than otherwise would be the case, so fewer invest in that activity than in other opportunities. Fewer houses get built, house prices rise, and more prospective purchasers find themselves on social-housing waiting lists. Section 106 agreements to provide more social housing because it’ll be needed are, in aggregate, self-fulfilling!
I can’t even bring myself to discuss how shared equity schemes and other devices to subsidise house purchases simply push up the general price in the market.
The solution seems to me blindingly obvious, so I’m going to cut to the chase (a phrase, incidentally, that grated when used by Bob Hoskins in Made in Dagenham, since it wasn’t in general usage in 1968 when the film was set – I remember first hearing it in 1994).
We’ve simply got to manage the relationship between wages, at the low end, and house prices so that working people can afford to house themselves and their families. The implication is that there needs to be a higher minimum wage in areas where housing is expensive. It is simple exploitation to be paying the national minimum wage in central London, because there are only a limited number of possible outcomes. Either workers commute in which case they spend more time and money than if they were working near their home; or living-standards drop and people end up sleeping in shifts; or benefits are necessary to top-up earnings, subsidising employers and consumers in expensive areas. Ideally, employers would have to pay more in expensive areas, but the labour market is, has been for some time, and will be for some time, a buyers’ market. Indeed it is government policy to force people to take any job they can get.
What a mess! State provision of housing has led to a situation where the minimum wage is nowhere near a “living” wage. Perhaps that’s a bit strong: rather, state provision of housing and other benefits has provided a safety-valve so that pay has been allowed to become gradually lower and lower relative to socially accepted minimum living standards.
Maybe some blame should be apportioned, in order to unravel some of the mystery how we arrived in this absurd situation.
First, there are those, almost all in the Labour Party, but not all of the Labour Party, who believe it is right that the state provides housing and benefits on the basis of need. “Capitalism” is so “unfair” that the state must step in. As I’ve mentioned this policy has failed.
Second, there are those in all three parties who take a position I would characterise as “hand-wringing liberals” who make no attempt to analyse the problem and produce a complete policy. They just want to address the problems of those with whom they empathise. The trouble is, as I’ve also already said, with limited supply, allocating a house to Mr Jones simply moves Mr Smith onto the waiting list. As a rationalist this is the position I detest most of all. Government has a duty to find as solution for everyone, not self-righteously apply sticking-plaster where they most easily can.
Third, there are those in all three parties – since many of the individuals concerned have a vested interest in the form of their own properties – who explicitly or tacitly believe the natural order of things is for people like themselves to own their own homes, ever-rising in value, and that there must necessarily be “the poor” who don’t deserve or are incapable of having the same thing. Explicitly in the case of some Conservatives… heeeere’s Boris!:
“Better a stagnant housing market, [those arguing for an end to housing speculation] will say, than another great boom and another great bust. Which is all very well, in theory.
In practice, it looks as if flattening off the housing market is both risky in the short term, and unachievable in the long term. The sad truth is that it is still psychologically essential to the British middle classes to have a sense that our principal asset is gently appreciating in value, or at least that it will over the long term.”
Stark-staring bonkers, of course.
Houses simply can’t appreciate in value indefinitely compared to other goods and services. The world doesn’t work like that. Eventually house price rises will become self-defeating: even if they don’t stimulate more new-build supply (because of self-interested nimbyism); or inflation, causing interest-rate and hence mortgage increases; they’ll eventually act as such a drag on the economy that activity moves elsewhere – abroad, most likely – and housing demand and prices fall.
Those who buy into the view that the increasing value of their home represents a permanent increase in wealth support the ongoing British class division implicitly. What they refuse to countenance is entirely feasible: it is possible for everyone in work to own their own home, or rent at a market rate, if they prefer the flexibility they gain that way.
So the three stooges are “Old Labour” socialists, who don’t believe markets can ever be fair; bleeding heart, sawdust-headed “Liberals”; and divided nation, blue-blood-is-just-better “Conservatives”.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of accepting capitalism as it is (“Conservative”), or rejecting it (“Old Labour”), or ooh, poor little kitten! (“Liberal”), we can make capitalism fairer. A much higher minimum wage, relative to local house prices, would solve many of the problems that are causing such angst.