Danny Dorling's brilliant study of Britain's housing disaster

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Sun Mar 2 20:59:17 GMT 2014

All That Is Solid review – Danny Dorling's 
brilliant study of Britain's housing disaster

Danny Dorling's examination of home ownership and 
the grim prospects for those stuck with high 
rents and few rights makes shocking reading
Observer, Sunday 2 March 2014

Shelter, like food, is essential for life. 
Without a home you have no place to lay your head 
and no place in the world to call your own. Even 
in rich countries, where they were once secure, 
homes have become precarious, as if sinkholes were opening under them.
A few figures from Danny Dorling's brilliantly 
original study of our national obsession and 
national malaise explain why. No one can pretend 
now that we are moving towards a property-owning 
democracy. For the first time in a century, the 
share of homes rented privately has risen – up 6% 
between 2001 and 2011. In London and the 
south-east – and many cities outside – rents are 
extortionate. In 2012 the National 
Federation said they had risen by 37% since 2007 
and would rise by another 35% by 2018. The 
Rowntree Foundation estimated that the number of 
people in their 20s with a mortgage will halve 
within the next five years. The economic system 
is pushing millions into the private rented 
sector, which has no rent controls and no 
security of tenure, and where minimum standards 
apply only to houses in multi-occupancy – when, 
that is, those standards are enforced, which is hardly ever.
The coalition has taken John Stuart Mill's 
criticism that landlords "grow rich in their 
sleep without working, risking or economising", 
and treated it as a compliment. It gives the 2% 
of the population that make up the landlord 
interest tens of billions of pounds of public 
money in the form of housing benefit and 
guarantees for speculative building. As for the 
increasingly privatised world of social housing, 
we are told that it is the home for scroungers. 
The slur may carry truth in individual cases but 
in 2011/12 the average tenant of a social housing 
home had a median income of £8,996 a year – 
£24.63 a day. They cannot live without state 
support. But that support is crumbling. As 
Dorling says, the only new social homes we are building are prison wings.
The apparent exception to the state's pandering 
to rentiers is the government's 
to Buy scheme. You have not understood the full 
meaning of the word "disgrace" until you have 
understood its effects. Help to Buy no longer 
encourages the building of new homes or 
affordable homes. It does nothing to stop its 
potential landlords using taxpayer guarantees to 
buy homes to rent. (One third of the council 
homes sold to tenants by Margaret Thatcher are 
now owned by buy-to-let landlords. Why should it 
be different this time?) Albert Edwards, of 
Société Générale, described the use of taxpayers' 
money to fund "Help to Buy" as a 
policy that stands head and shoulders above most 
of the stupid economic policies I have seen implemented".
purpose is to push up 
prices in the hope of benefiting from feelings of 
wellbeing among owner-occupiers, and this at a 
time when tens of thousands of Londoners are 
handing over 50% of their income in rent.
The market is more twisted than in 100 years 
towards those who own land and property, and the 
right is twisting it further. House prices rose 
sixfold between 1983 and 2007. Land values rose 
sixteenfold – which is why landowners and 
builders hoard development land like grain 
profiteers in a famine. With the lazy complicity 
of the Treasury and Revenue & Customs, the rich 
evade stamp duty through offshore service 
companies. And, of course, they are the 
beneficiaries of the council tax, a modified 
version of the poll tax, which is an effective subsidy to the wealthiest.
I accept that if you live in Glasgow or 
Hartlepool or Derry, London is another planet. 
But look at what it is becoming. The centre is a 
playground for the global super rich. The working 
and middle classes are leaving. The poor are 
shunted into banlieues in the outer suburbs or 
sent north. Even if London is a foreign city to 
you, the government's bedroom tax will bring the 
capital's segregation close to your home by 
moving families, notably families with disabled 
children, into blocks of small flats or forcing them into poverty.
Upholders of the existing order say that nothing 
can be done. When 60% of our national wealth is 
tied up in property, and the banks would crash 
all over again if the property market went, the 
status quo must be protected at all costs.
Reformers say we cannot go on like this. But 
their solution is to rip up the green belt, let 
the bulldozers roll and build new homes. I agreed 
with them once, even though I love the southern 
countryside. But I was shaken by Dorling's 
question: what is the point of building new homes 
if only the well-off can buy them? You would 
never guess it but there isn't a housing 
shortage. Even London has more bedrooms than 
people. But the rich have gathered space and 
properties for themselves to enjoy or exploit. In 
1981 the wealthiest 10th of households had three 
times as many rooms in their homes as the poorest 
10th. By 2011 it had five times as many. We have 
seen nothing like it since the pre-Lloyd George 
Britain of 1901, Queen Victoria's last year.
A few of Dorling's proposals to redistribute 
space are as old as Lloyd George's liberalism: a 
national land tax, for instance. Others ought to 
be uncontroversial: use the tax system to 
discourage second homes, holiday homes and empty 
commercial property; bring back rent controls; 
and give homeowners the "right to stay" as 
tenants if they can no longer afford to pay a mortgage.
It is only because we are caught in the mania of 
a bubble market that we think we cannot change. I 
wonder what it will take to wake us from our 
dream. A crash? A revolt of the rent payers? I 
don't know. But I do know this: when the present 
is intolerable and reform appears impossible something has to give.

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