Saturday 14 June 2014

A property-owning democracy is a great thing - we need more of it, not less


Although many people bemoan right-to-buy, suggesting that it was a terrible thing that the government allowed ordinary working people who'd been stuck in council housing to buy those houses at a discount. The truth, of course, is that this was perhaps the biggest transfer of wealth to the ordinary man in modern history. And for all that many of those homes were sold on to rent-to-buy businesses and, for a few, created a painful burden of debt and trouble, the overall effect was good - liberating people from dependency and spreading wealth to people who had none before. Indeed it angers me that the same 'progressive' folk who complain about wealth inequality also tell me that right-to-buy was wrong.

Today, in another time, we talk of there being some sort of housing crisis. The National Housing Federation (in a truly awful piece of cod-research) using soap opera characters to make a point, people at think-tanks proposing rent controls and writers suggesting that there is no chance of their children owning a home - low interest rates and high prices have driven the cost of home ownership beyond the reach of the ordinary. And these people are right about there being a problem but wrong in denying that the desire to own a property - a little patch of England that's ours - is not only good for the owners but good for society as a whole.

Over 90% of Hungarians own their own home compared to a little over 60% on the UK. Yet property prices in that land remain affordable - not just in our eyes but in the eyes of Hungarians. And the reason for this is quite simple - the Hungarian state has not spent years creating an artificial shortage of development land. In principle you can buy a plot of land and build a house on that plot. Just as was the case in the UK up to 1947 when the Labour Party (as it did with everything else) decided that it knew better and nationalised the right to develop. It's true that the various planning acts all presented a "presumption in favour of development" but it was a presumption not a right and government could and did remove that right on a whim.

Today less than 10% of the UK has houses built on it (and yes this includes the gardens of those houses) and we have approaching a third of our land set aside with special protections that make an absolute mockery of this "presumption in favour of development". Every small encroachment into that undeveloped land is resisted vigorously by local people - I know for I've been involved in several of these campaigns. Even a week ago the government was bouncing between the need to build more houses so as to meet demand and the political imperative of protecting those 'green fields'.

Even when proposals are made that would see sensitive and properly scaled development in places people want to live, we find the self-interest (wrapped up a charity in the form of the National Trust, CPRE and National Housing Federation) in opposition to providing people with homes. Except no - they want those homes to be somewhere else, new slums crammed onto ex-industrial land. These people are the modern day versions of Henry Potter - talking about a "thrifty working class" while denying them the chance to live in a decent home. They want a world where it's fine to rent - words usually expressed by people who aren't renting and have no intention of renting. Indeed, this word such important people want is one where housing is owned by corporations, associations and governments rather than ordinary working people.

Now here's a thing - how about we set our minds to thinking how we get back to the time when, as my sister describes: prices even twenty years ago were high compared to those enjoyed by the post-war generation. My parents bought their first property when I was three. My mother didn't work, so the mortgage was granted on the basis of my father's income alone, and he paid all of it. A single male middle-income earner could afford the mortgage on a three-bedroom semi in the suburbs of London. 

It won't be easy - the desire to protect the wealth locked up in your and my house is very strong. But we can begin to think about opening up self-build and small development. We need a new generation of right-to-buy to prevent the residualisation of social housing. And we need to change the assumptions about housing as an investment.

But the most important thing is that we need to say again - and keep saying again and again until it really sinks in - that property ownership is a good thing, that we need more of it, that 'social housing' is a necessary evil not a desirable long-term solution to anything and that locking ownership into big government, big business and big associations destroys liberty and undermines a free society. Ownership is central to our civilisation, it is not an optional add-on that can be tweaked and adjusted by the whim of some patronising elite.

A property-owning democracy is a great thing indeed. Let's have more of it!


1 comment:

Simon Cooke said...

This comment is reposted from Facebook - it's from my good friend Huw Jones who probably knows as much about housing as anyone else in the UK:

Huw Jones As it happens Simon, I don't disagree with you in principle. However, a few things spring to mind.

1) Right to buy was never wrong. The failure to build low cost rented housing to replace those sold was what was shamefully wrong, as was the gradual shift from investing in bricks and mortar to housing benefit.

2) Renting will and should always have a place in the housing market. It makes sense for people at certain times in their lives to rent, and thats speaking as someone who has beem renting for the past 6 years.

3) Given the nature of the 'flexible labour market', restrained pay and insecure working contracts so beloved of free marketeers, and the current and likely future lending policies (designed apparently to contain irresponsible ownership), and the supply side issues you rightly highlight, how on earth do you think an increase in property ownership is actually going to be achieved? And how exactly does the system of home trading in its current form help a flexible labour market?

It seems to me that the labour and housing markets are at complete odds, and until that gets sorted out....youre wish for more ownership is toast