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