Is the Blairs’ £27m property empire relevant to public anger about the housing crisis?

Tony Gosling tony at
Wed Mar 16 18:23:37 GMT 2016

Is the Blairs’ £27m property empire relevant to 
public anger about the housing crisis?
  Larry Elliott and Aditya Chakrabortty debate 
whether the ex-PM is responsible for or just the 
beneficiary of a British housing policy that’s gone badly wrong
  The Blairs’ house in Buckinghamshire. As a 
family, the Blairs have a portfolio of at least 10 houses and 27 flats.

Larry Elliott and Aditya Chakrabortty  Tuesday 15 March 2016 19.51 GMT

Larry Elliott: It’s easy to dismiss them as 
greedballs, but as a nation we’re hooked on property-led growth

A married couple in their 60s have made a killing 
out of the property market and used some of the 
windfall gains to help their kids on to the 
housing ladder. Nothing unusual about that, you 
might say: the Britain of 2016 is awash with baby 
boomers who have accumulated wealth over the past 
four decades and are now passing a chunk of the 
profits to their offspring. Except that in this 
case, the husband and wife are Tony and Cherie Blair.

The former prime minister and his barrister wife 
have built themselves quite a property empire. 
Mews homes in central London, buy-to-let flats in 
Stockport, country piles in the Chilterns; the 
Blairs have a portfolio of at least 10 houses and 27 flats valued at £27m.

The case against the Blairs is surely not that 
they are unique in wanting to make money out of 
property. Britain is awash with people who bought 
a home in the 1970s and 1980s, saw it triple or 
quadruple in price, and borrowed against its 
rising value to secure themselves a nest egg for 
their retirement. If they are guilty of property 
speculation, albeit in a different league from 
the average buy-to-let landlord, then so are 
millions of others. Rather, the charge should be 
that during the decade that he was prime 
minister, Blair talked a lot about “opportunity 
for all” but bequeathed an economy in which the 
gap between the property haves and have-nots 
widened so much. Owner occupation levels peaked 
halfway through Blair’s premiership at 70% in 
2002, and have since fallen by five percentage 
points. Does Blair share the blame for this? No question – he does.

Britain is a small country, with tight planning 
controls and a tax system that encourages home 
ownership. The combination of restricted supply 
and rampant demand means that the trend in prices 
is always upwards.The dismantling of credit 
controls from the early 1970s onwards has meant 
finance has been readily available for those 
willing to take a punt. The process has been 
simple: find a property, mortgage yourself up to 
the eyeballs, and wait. It is a wealth creation 
process that requires no great skill.

This is a systemic problem that goes well beyond 
the Blairs. Clearly, there is something dubious 
about a prime minister presiding over a colossal 
property boom and then taking advantage of the 
inevitable (if brief) slump to pick up houses on the cheap.

But the modern UK economy has only two settings: 
slow growth or property-fuelled growth. In 2012, 
George Osborne’s solution to a flatlining economy 
was to provide incentives to banks to increase 
the flow of mortgage lending. This was disastrous 
for Generation Rent, which saw the possibility of 
buying a home disappear even further into the distance.

But what as a nation are we prepared to do about 
it? Impose capital gains tax on the sale of a 
primary residence? No. Make council tax more 
progressive? No. Return annual housebuilding to 
the levels seen in the 1960s? Heavens, no. The 
virtual demise in the private sector of final 
salary pensions means Britons have become ever 
more reliant on property to finance retirement.

The easy bit is to dismiss the Blairs as a couple 
of greedballs. The hard bit is doing something 
about it. In part, that’s because the hollowing 
out of the UK’s manufacturing base and its 
replacement by the bricks and mortar industry is 
so well established. In part it’s because 
governments fear that tackling the problem would be electoral suicide.
Aditya Chakrabortty: Blair dreamed up the policy 
that forced councils into social cleansing

Who is to blame for the fact that it’s now nearly 
impossible for a young working family to rent or 
buy a home in most of Britain? The question is 
hardly ever asked, as if the UK’s property market 
were some sort of natural force, like a tidal 
movement or a cloud formation. But for one of the 
richest societies in the history of the world to 
be unable to house so many of its own people is 
not natural at all – it is an abomination, 
created, approved and preserved by our 
politicians. Chief among those politicians – 
easily on the top three of guilty men and women 
responsible for Britain’s housing crisis – is Tony Blair.

It was under Blair that the amateur landlord boom 
really got going. It was Blair who sat on his 
hands rather than build affordable homes. Blair 
was absolutely complicit in the new culture of 
Britons using their family nests as cash 
machines. He allowed the property bubble to grow 
and grow, even while economists and politicians 
such as Vince Cable fretted over the bust to come.

As prime minister, Blair couldn’t have cared less 
for council homes, or the people who lived in them

Having consolidated Britain’s position as the 
world’s leading rentier economy, the former prime 
minister has gone on to join its rentier elite. 
Blair and his clan have gone into property 
speculation, hoovering up home after home into a 
massive £27m portfolio. Of course they’re 
buy-to-let landlords, renting out flats to 
students and key workers across Manchester and 
Stockport. They’re doing what the pater familias 
urged voters to do when he was in No 10.

The 1.2m households currently on the waiting list 
for council accommodation can thank Blair, too. 
As prime minister, he couldn’t have cared less 
for council homes, or the people who lived in 
them. Soon after moving into Downing Street in 
1997, he made his first public speech from the 
Aylesbury estate in 1997, referring to the 
families who lived there as the “forgotten 
playing no role in the formal economy, dependent 
on benefits and the black economy.”

Thus did New Labour recast council tenants as 
extras in an episode of Shameless. Not only did 
he do nothing to stop the right to buy, which has 
eaten through public housing stock, but he also 
dreamed up the policy whereby councils seeking to 
repair their dilapidated flats and houses were 
forced to go to the private sector. This was the 
policy that has led to local authorities across 
London and the south-east selling their land and 
their houses to big developers for a song in the 
hope of getting some affordable stock back. If 
you want to know who is responsible for council 
regeneration becoming a synonym for social cleansing, look to Blair.
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that shall not be revealed; and nothing hid that 
shall not be made known. What I tell you in 
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