Housing Whom?


Oxford professor Danny Dorling is the rising star of radical sociology.  Some of us heard him speak in Witney during the 2010 election campaign.  He has his critics, but he has an impressive grasp of statistics and deploys them with devastating effect.

A review of his latest book, All That Is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster, appeared in Metro last week.  Did you know that in 2012 one in every four new jobs in Britain went to a new estate agent?
What’s that?  Yes, someone’s definitely doing alright.  And those who aren’t still hope to.  Dorling wants to challenge the idea of a home as something for which we incur titanic debts in the hope of profiting from buyers even more desperate than us further down the line.  For him, as for any sane person, homes are shelter first and assets second.  Yet we seem to have lost sight of the idea that they are something basic, like education or healthcare, whose provision public policy could address.  The loudest complaints are not about homelessness but about being unable to get on to the ‘property ladder’.  The London parties have no answer because they too are wrapped up in the idea that the job of government is to enrich competing individuals and families, rather than to enrich society and so spare them the trouble.
For Dorling, the solution isn’t to build more houses everywhere, at the expense of the environment and primarily for the benefit of landowners, developers and the banks.  His claim is that Britain has plenty of housing but doesn’t use it efficiently.  It’s a bold claim, undoubtedly over-stated given that the population really is growing and really is spreading out, with average household size declining.  But let’s examine his solution, which could make some inroads into the problem, however big it happens to be overall.
The answer isn’t the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ but heavier taxes on multiple properties.  Why is that politically a non-starter?  Dorling’s claim, reasonably enough, is that MPs won’t vote against practices that benefit them – and, we might add, benefit them probably more than any other group.  He brings up an interview in which David Cameron appeared to forget just how many homes he owned.  (Regional government, allowing almost all legislators to live within commuting distance of their assembly, would be a very much better bargain for the taxpayer than Westminster.)
The social problems caused by multiple home ownership don’t correlate with economic and political power, do they?  Where are the holiday second homes?  Largely on the peripheries: Cornwall, Wales, the Lake District, coastal East Anglia, and some parts of Wessex (the south coast, Exmoor and the Cotswolds).  And where do their owners live?  Largely in the south-eastern quadrant, we suggest.  The power certainly isn’t where the homes are, nor where the desperate, badly housed locals are.  So we need to take it back through meaningful devolution and start putting people before property.
As well as the homes that are empty for most of the time, there are the homes that are empty the whole of the time, the long-term vacant properties, some of which in Wessex have been empty for 30 years.  Why?  To free market theorists, such a waste of assets is inexplicable.  Their economics textbooks say it can’t happen.  The reasons why it happens are complex.  One can be that the owner has died and their estate hasn’t been sorted out, or there are family disagreements or joint ownerships where the owners no longer speak to each other.  The owner may be in prison.  Or aged or in poor health and just not bothered.  Sometimes there may be negative equity, and so difficulty in funding any necessary improvements.  Yet these are assets that could be providing shelter, without damaging the environment.  Why is more not done to fill the empties?  Why are we so tolerant, equally of so many wasted opportunities AND of the wholly needless destruction of farmland that results?
Taxation is a relatively benign way of rebalancing the housing market in favour of local need.  It falls short of the outright confiscation that might appeal to some of the market’s most scarred victims.  But it would give them enough hope not to reach for the petrol can and the matches to make their views felt.  Dorling suggests removing the limit on council tax banding so that the wealthiest pay in line with the value of their multiple properties.  A land tax would address a whole range of problems, while higher inheritance tax would do something to tackle the huge accumulation of unearned wealth in London and its suburbs.
The next question is what to do with the money raised.  If local communities need affordable housing, why not provide some?  Not necessarily by building new houses, which often come at an environmental cost, remember.  But by buying up existing ones and letting them out to the sons and daughters of the parish.  It’s not beyond the wit of lawyers to devise a system of lettings, leases, covenants or parish council consent to guarantee that the recycling of such housing always prioritises those with a local connection.  Through such means it would be possible to build up a two-tier housing market of the kind that helps keep the Channel Islands as they are, relatively undeveloped, with enough housing for the locals, plus a few to spare, in their case for rich tax exiles.
Instead of doing what’s right for us in the round, we currently provide affordable homes by imposing them as a requirement on housebuilders.  And to sweeten the pill we let them build two market houses for every affordable one.  We need a new model that allows the affordable ones to be built, if suitable sites exist, without the market ones coming along as the ball-and-chain.  We could let local councils build them, and call them ‘council houses’.  That way, housing misery need never be a source of private profit ever again.  Which, of course, is exactly why a solution as obvious as that enjoys nomainstream political support.

It’s through formulating such policies that we can begin to envisage the ‘reconquest’ of Wessex assets from the London and global interests that have failed us.  We need to take back our housing, our water, our electricity, our trains, our land, in short, our future.  Can this be done without devolution, given the legal and financial screws that the London regime continually places on local expenditure?  No.  That is why we need devolution.

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