Sarah Palin is not my usual source of inspiration for political slogans, but ‘drill, baby, drill’ was pretty catchy. We should adopt our own – build, baby, build.
In elections, housing is often the dog that does not bark, despite being one of those issues that affects everyone – buyers and sellers, owners and renters, young and old, middle class and working class. Political types argue about whether we should build more social housing or extend help to buy, but voters just do not seem to think that there is very much that government can do – hence its lack of salience as an election issue. The politicians then connive with the voters in assuming that things should just go on as they are – house prices should continue to rise unevenly and, mostly, much faster than the rate of inflation and the London property market should overheat once a decade.
When was the last time you heard a politician argue that rising house prices are a bad thing? Labour types are very comfortable talking about rent caps and licensing of landlords, but when did you last hear one point out that our housing market is a massive unequal con trick? That, every year, it transfers money from the working to the retired, from the north to the south, from renters to owners? That, by not building enough homes, we allow the nimbys and those who already own to pull up the property ladder and stop others enjoying what they already have? We do not say it – but we should.
A house is, for most of us, the most valuable thing we will ever own. Unlike most of our possessions, our house defines us in the same way as our jobs, friends and families do. Yet private housing is treated in modern Britain as a source of speculation and unearned wealth, rather than security and identity. London prices continue to bubble up – in three boroughs, they increased by more than 30 per cent last year – but this is a concern at dinner parties up and down the country, not just in Islington and Camden.
If we are bold about making One Nation a reality, we cannot be satisfied at the wedge that this drives between our fellow countrymen and women. Londoners are pitted against everyone else – a Londoner can sell up and buy in Manchester, but a Mancunian will struggle to do the reverse. The young are pitted against the old – the rate of increase has itself increased – good news if you got your foot on the ladder years ago, bad news if you are trying to do that today. The single are pitted against the coupled. People’s homes are defined well into their working lives not by the job that they do, but by the job that their parents did, allowing them to stump up a deposit. Two Nations indeed.
The solution is simple – get serious and get building. We need to say loud and clear that constantly rising prices are a bad thing. Every time a young nurse or teacher cannot afford to buy their own home, and is forced to pay rent to someone older and richer than they are, we all lose, as our public services struggle to attract the talent that we all rely on. Every time a young manager in a business cannot afford to live near their workplace, we all lose, as those businesses struggle to recruit and retain those young people. And every time a family finds that, although the parents bought their home years ago, their children cannot afford to do the same, we all lose, whether we own our own home or not.
Once we have got serious, then we can get building. Rising prices are a symptom of a simple economic fact: demand increasing at a faster rate than supply. Failing to at least keep pace with demand makes each generation less likely to own their own place than their parents. It also means that we fail everyone who rents. Those who unwillingly rent because they cannot afford to buy lose out, but so do those who rent in appalling conditions in the social or private sectors because there are not enough homes to go around.
In London, we protect the green belt with religious fervour despite the fact that much of it is not even particularly green. Where is the similar fervour demanding that we build? In my neck of the woods, that makes the users of Chigwell golf course the winners and the young couple who cannot buy their first home in Walthamstow and the single mum bringing up her kids on the fifteenth floor of a Tottenham tower block the losers. Supply and demand – what is a belt to some, holding up their asset prices, is a choker to others, stopping them getting their own home.
We keep hearing about the battles between the ‘bold’ camp and the ‘conservative’ camp at the top of the Labour party. Here is an area where bold is best. We all lose out from our current fetish of rising house prices – even if we own our home, we are defrauding the next generation. We should say this loud and clear and then we should don our hard hats and get building. Clement Attlee promised homes for heroes after the second world war. We need the same fervour if we are to do the same. If we do not come down squarely on the side of the builders, we will have chosen sides, and we will have chosen wrongly.
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