Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
How did we get to this
point? Four out of five couples, recent headlines announce, cannot
now afford to buy a house. In a rather odd parallel to a
man-bites-dog situation, if 1600 homes are to be bolted onto one of
Colchester's flanks it is not news. If, however,16 'affordable' homes
are to be built in a nearby village, it's news. Not just news, but a
In recent years, for
instance, a Tendring councillor, Lyn McWilliams, struggled
valiantly for eighteen
years so that a dozen affordable homes could be built in Aingers
Green, near Great Bentley. During that time, thousands and thousands
of – do we call them 'non-affordable'? – homes went up all over
the region. What peculiar mindset permits such a situation? Recent
news that the bottom two rungs of the housing ladder have been
effectively removed has elicited some odd responses. According to
Emma Reynolds, the Shadow Housing Minister, “Unless we build many
more homes, working people will be denied their dream.” Dream?
This is the tremulous language of the TV talent show contestant. Can
the last one leaving the country please remove the light bulbs?
A home shouldn't be a
'dream'. It's an absolute necessity, right up there with water,
food, warmth and an income.
Whenever I am trying to
understand the seeming intractability of some modern obstacle, it is
my habit, not to scry into the future but instead to re-examine the
past. Usually I don't even have to go very far back, in order to shed
some light on things.
of the worst housing crises in living memory ensued immediately after
the last world war. This was caused, they now believe by the
assiduous bombing activities of some near-continental neighbours. As
a result of prevailing housing shortages, governmental blind eyes
were often turned to people living in huts, tents, old railway
carriages and on boats. The latter was the case, I have sometimes
heard, in Wivenhoe, where a group of people remained living in boats
for some years following the war. Farther up the coast, in Jaywick,
a place built as a holiday village in the 1930s by the entrepreneur
Frank Stedman, became a rather more permanent settlement. In London,
a squatters collective comprised of people who after fighting a war,
returned to homelessness, illegally occupied townhouses in the
capital's West End, refusing to budge. Under siege from the
authorities, their sympathisers, and there were many, threw the
squatters tins of food through the open windows. The Ealing comedy classic
to Pimlico is
loosely based on that now almost-forgotten dispute.
post-war housing crisis was followed by a huge building programme.
During six or seven years following the war, 1.2 million new houses
were built. Of these, almost 157, 000 were prefabs – an idea of
Winston Churchill's. Prefab, that is to say factory-built
prefabricated houses were an interim solution, meant only to last for
10 years. I
happen to know that there were still a couple of them in Rectory
Road, Wivenhoe until almost the mid 1980s. Oh, and they nearly all
had gardens big enough for a vegetable patch. These, were truly
affordable homes. The government, back then realised that the
workforce might need somewhere to lay its head, after a hard day's
getting the country back on its feet.
When we talk about a
housing 'crisis' do we mean that there aren't enough weather-proofed
dwellings where people may live? Or are we talking about the
impossibility of owning those dwellings? A further element adding to
our 'crisis' is that since estate agents took over the rental rodeo,
rent has reached parity with mortgage payments. Not only did it used
to be cheaper and easier to rent your house than to buy, it was also
something which you might do for years, if not decades. .
My grandad, a bus-driver,
rented the same house for most his adult life. Nowadays much rented
accommodation involves 6 or 12-month contracts, huge deposits and a
sheaf of regulations implemented during the buy-to-let boom. Such
rules, once in place, effectively turkey-truss the tenant almost to
immobility. Never mind being able to affording to buy a house, this
country's young couples need to be able to afford to simply dwell in
a house. I repeat, this should not be a dream.
I have an old friend in
Germany. His family have rented their house from the local council
for almost 200 years. It is, as you may have gathered, a secure
tenure. The family have over the centuries modernised and probably
extended the property a bit. They do not, as we do, sit around at
weekends getting all wistful over the property supplements.They just
live there. The Germans at 40% and the Swiss, at 38% have some of the
lowest home-ownership figures in the developed world. Here in the UK
we have some of the highest. Although home-ownership has declined
slightly, from a 2003 peak of 70 percent, for now it remains buoyant.
The rental sector has risen, however, which, we suppose is why the
estate agents have 'homed' in on it.
Overall it strikes me
that our problem, our crisis here, is not one of shortage of actual
dwellings. Cycle into nearly any pretty village at dusk and observe
how many unlit second homes there are. Our problem is one of
perception. Is your property a home – or part of an investment
portfolio? There is of course one simple explanation for our
so-called crisis. Greed.