Yes, it’s Manifesto Week! Buy one policy, get one free! Hard-working family? We’ve got something for you! Pensioner? We’ve got something for you too! School-leaver? Er… Anyway, hurry while stocks last! Offer only available until May 7!
Yesterday, the Tories unveiled the latest social demographic they seek to woo – those unfortunate enough not to own their own home. Haven’t we been here before? One early pointer to Margaret Thatcher’s social and economic revolution was the introduction of the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme way back in 1980, a law enabling council tenants to buy their homes and a policy that was to ‘liberate’ Joe Public by wrestling ownership of his home away from the hands of nasty (most likely left-wing) councils, thus beginning the mania for property ownership that was to reach its apogee at the turn of the twenty-first century, when houses ceased to be viewed as homes and became little more than cattle to be fattened-up and sold at an inflated price, resulting in a quick profit that would then be spent on another cash-cow that could repeat the process. Of course, this policy consequently reduced the number of council properties available for those of no fixed abode, properties that were already in short supply due to the large-scale building programmes of the 60s and 70s having dried up.
Prior to this change, council housing didn’t have the stigma attached to it that it does today, and the so-called ‘sink estates’ were relatively few in number. The council houses that remained in council hands thereafter tended to become landfill sites for ‘problem families’, and the council house tenant regarded as something akin to a social pariah. But Thatcher’s dubious genius lay in persuading the people this was being done for their benefit; that many who had purchased their council houses eventually struggled to keep up with their mortgage payments and suffered the ignominy of having their homes repossessed was naturally not given much coverage in the Tory press. Besides, the banking industry did well out of this arrangement, and that was more important in the Brave New World that was poised to emerge in the middle of the 1980s.
As far as the alleged beneficiaries of these policies were concerned, Mrs Thatcher was taking power away from the state and putting it in the hands of the people, and after more than a decade of state-run industries being beset by turmoil courtesy of bolshie unions – with the public suffering an endless sequence of disruptions and inconveniences as a result – this was viewed as a Good Thing. 2015 is not 1980, however; the housing market is a different animal today than the one it was thirty-five years ago.
The new scheme is a dangling carrot for tenants who rent properties owned by housing associations; the assumption is not only that these tenants actually want to be burdened with owning their home (or, to be more precise, leasing it from a building society), but that they actually have the money to buy it. And is there an additional plan in place to build new housing association properties to replace the ones purchased by tenants? Ah, yes, that old standby – ‘Affordable Housing’, which translates as barely affordable newly built houses with rooms designed to the specifications of railway carriages. Have you ever set foot in a newly built Affordable House? Not only do such houses resemble properties in Trumpton on the outside, but the claustrophobic scale of the interiors would result in even Windy Miller banging his head on the low ceilings. The whole concept taps into the ludicrous snobbery of the home-owner when confronted by the renter, something that has become a uniquely British characteristic many foreign visitors to these shores find utterly perplexing and mystifying.
Away from parental property, I’ve spent all my adult life in rented accommodation. Its pluses as far as I have been able to discern are as follows…
Any repairs need doing, there’s no cost; no plumber or joiner or electrician to be tracked down in the Yellow Pages; the landlord or letting agents usually dispatch someone free of charge within twenty-four hours. Any trouble with fellow tenants and the trouble-causers are given a series of warnings ignored at their peril, unless eviction is something they think they’re immune to. If one’s fellow tenants are easy-going types who aren’t permanently at the door on the cadge, there can be a genuinely harmonious household that evokes something of a community spirit and makes for friendly chats on the doorstep. There’s none of the isolation and detachment from one’s neighbours that can characterise so many residential neighbourhoods. True, rent isn’t cheap, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a mortgage; and when I move to the next place, I won’t still be paying for the previous one.
When I think of the endless financial headaches endured by home-owning friends, the more the hollow status symbol of a home of one’s own seems to be. Many who call themselves home-owners won’t actually ever truly own their home; it took my own mother forty years to achieve actual ownership, but who stays in one house for forty years these days? The mortgage is a millstone that will remain around the necks of today’s so-called home-owners with all the clinging persistence of a bluebottle lovingly lingering over a summer turd.
The astronomical cost of a house in Britain today – even in parts of the country where ‘Des Res’ is more likely to be the name of your friendly neighbourhood drug-dealer – should, in theory, serve to the curb the mania for home ownership; but it doesn’t appear to be doing so. The idea of owning your own home is now so entrenched in the British psyche that common sense in terms of what is and isn’t within one’s budget simply doesn’t apply. No wonder the Tories have latched onto those stigmatised as second-class residents of the rented sector; what greater incentive to vote for Cameron than the reward of joining the home-owning set? Cameron and his post-Blair ilk may like to talk about a Classless Society, but one set of divisions merely supersede another; the class divide today is between those who own and those who rent.
Of course, buying a house has always been a pricey business; we may marvel at how cheap the ones our parents (or we, depending on one’s age) bought back in the 60s or 70s, but then we have to measure the cost in relation to the average wage of the time. That said, the gulf between what we earn and what we can afford to buy has expanded considerably over the past twenty-odd years. Cameron and Clegg’s Hard Working Families of Alarm Clock Britain can be up at the crack of dawn five days a week to put in far more hours at the office or the factory (or the call-centre they built on the old factory site) than their parents’ generation did, yet they still struggle to own a home at the end of their endeavours. Does that sound like a fair deal to you?
From the premiership of Harold Macmillan to that of Harold Wilson, a knock ‘em down and build ’em up boom was underway in this country that swept away thousands of slums leftover from the previous century – admittedly, as well as many good solid Victorian and Edwardian houses that merely required a few repairs; first came the new-towns, then the tower blocks, and then the new housing estates. Yet, the building of new homes, whether one holds the Greenbelt lobby responsible or not, has slowed down considerably since then; and the more rented properties fall into the ownership of ex-tenants, the greater the need to build extensively will be. Can the coffers of the Treasury spare the change? While ever your vote is required, yes. Not so sure if this will be the case from May 8 onwards.