Some friends of mine, like many other people in the UK, are finding it hard to buy their first home. In some ways this makes me feel guilty because my wife and I were lucky enough to buy our home just before house prices began to go stratospheric.
Nevertheless, there is problem with the British psyche I think; all over the world people spend most of their lives in rented property and think nothing of it, but here we feel we must own the roof over our heads and are quite often made to feel inadequate if we don’t. My father used to call rent “dead money” which is a bit of a cliché, but like most clichés it has more than a sliver of truth in it. Rent is very much dead money, unless one is charging it.
There has been much furore recently, generated by the coalition, regarding people receiving lots of housing benefit. The general dialogue being used by the Conservatives at this moment uses their twisted definition of ‘fairness’. David Cameron furrows his brow and tells us that it is unfair the “hard-working families” are unable to afford to buy houses while those are on benefits are living in rented accommodation that “hard-working people could only dream of living in” (I’m paraphrasing him here). This is being used an excuse to put a 10% cap on claimant’s housing benefit if they are still claiming it after a year. This will inevitably cause much unnecessary grief and hardship to many families, whom often (through no fault of their own) are unable to better their circumstances. Nor does it take into account the fact that people’s circumstances can dramatically change owing to unforeseen events, such as bereavement, divorce, and so on.
Most people who have lived in rented accommodation know that it is their landlords who are abusing the housing benefits system. Many of them charge extortionate rent for very poor housing in very deprived areas (often crime-ridden) knowing full well that the rent will be paid via housing benefit. They set their prices accordingly (at the maximum allowed). What makes this situation even worse is that many of these landlords don’t even live in the UK, therefore don’t pay their taxes here. Will the coalition target them? I think not.
Regarding house prices, I don’t have the answer and I wish I did. One thing’s for certain, if more are built then surely the prices must go down. The coalition point to the fact that New Labour didn’t build enough new council houses while in office. This is a typically disingenuous argument because the Conservatives are completely aware that it was their administration that sold off most of the available council houses during the Thatcher/Major years. They would also have been the first to criticise any attempts Labour might have made at new council house construction with complaints about over-spending and building on the UK’s ‘green-belt’ (this indeed happened when John Prescott made such proposals).
One of the main problems can be found in the language used. The Conservatives speak of ‘property’ and ‘houses’ (that is, capital), whereas those who originally built council-houses as part of the welfare state understood that they were building homes. Those on the centre-left need to re-focus the debate to re-establish the purpose of such homes, to ensure that the Conservatives are not allowed to begin asset-stripping them as they did in the Thatcher/Major years.