Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Naive Melody

I get rained off work - I write something on the blog. Hence its intermittent nature.

I've been thinking a bit about Housing. It was on the You and Yours phone-in today. I'm not a property owner myself. I briefly had a mortgage with my first wife about twenty years ago - on a tiny ancient place in Lewes, East Sussex, up against the old town walls (2 Castle Rise in case you know the place). It was literally two up two down with a tiny sunless back yard which I filled with plants. There was me and her and her teenage daughter. Her teenage daughter had the only proper bedroom and my wife and I slept in the lounge. I know - it sounds like a perfect disaster waiting to happen doesn't it, especially with such a tumultuous relationship. It was one of those things where everyone, but everyone, could see what was going to happen but didn't like to interfere. Would I have listened? I don't know. I loved Lewes and wanted to live in an old place. Anyway, suffice it to say it got nasty and I moved out. In retrospect it would have made sense to keep tabs on that mortgage instead of just leaving her to it but I felt guilty and she was terrifying and we had her daughter to think of so I just left. Then she moved in with a mate of mine (who also owned an old place in Lewes) and they bought a small holding in France, last I heard. Anyway, the interesting point is that she was a nurse working in an old folk's home, and I was working in a garden centre - and they gave us a 90% mortgage on an old cottage in Lewes!
Just take a moment to process that. This was about twenty years ago. A couple with probably well below average incomes, getting a mortgage for a cottage in central Lewes of all places. And we were shown larger places, and just off the High Street too, but we didn't want the hassle of doing them up!
How things have changed.

I used to go walking in the country a lot when I was a young man - up on the Coombes Road and around Fulking (We lived in Southwick on the coast about half way between Brighton and Worthing) and I always sort of assumed I'd one day be able to live out there or somewhere like it - not necessarily in a very picturesque cottage - just a bungalow perhaps, or even just a hut, with a bit of ground to have a garden, some trees, a few ducks. Now I know that, short of winning the lottery, that's just never going to happen. It simply isn't possible any more. Nowadays, most of southern England is simply out of reach to most ordinary people. My wife and her ex own this place where I am now in a new estate in the Sussex town of Henfield but it's an interest-only mortgage and once the kids leave home (they're 14 and 16, so quite soon) that'll be us - back at the bottom of the property ladder. And neither of us is getting any younger (I was 50 last December, and she's... erm... a bit younger). No wonder she wants to emigrate to Canada, but that's a whole other pot of eels.

I'm not looking for sympathy. There's a lot worse going on in the world.
Does it matter? Or am I just upset at my own silly plight?
I think it does.
In the Radio 4 discussion someone said, as they inevitably do, sooner or later, "Well it's supply and demand innit?" There aren't enough houses so everyone's a bit desperate and the prices go up.
And nobody challenged that logic. They all just accepted it. It's the way of the world. Building more houses would be the only option.
I understand Supply and Demand. In a capitalist economy prices have only a tenuous relationship to how much things actually cost to make or how much real life-and-death value they have, but they have a very direct relationship with how much people are prepared to pay. So something like gold, which has little practical value is expensive because it's rare. Bread though, which is very useful, is cheap because it's easy to make. So far so egg-suckingly obvious. The question arises when something is both rare and useful, nay, essential. What then? And what if something is artificially rare? What if it's only rare because someone has bought it all up? If someone buys up all the posh shoes it doesn't mean everyone else has to go without shoes. They just make more ordinary shoes and those with the money can indulge their whim for overpriced footwear without affecting the rest of us, but that's not how it is with housing. Somewhere (decent) to live is an essential, not a luxury, but it's in short supply. What there is, is disproportionately bought up by those who already have more than they need and... what? The rest of us go without? Or we just impose on the hospitality of those who bought their property before the market went nuts (for which read The Parents) or we claim benefits whereby the government (by which I mean Us) pays the landlords the inflated price their 'supply and demand' has created.

Part of the problem has to be that at some point, I think, in the 80s (the dreaded T word again) housing became more 'an investment' than a home. People bought their properties with a view to selling them for a profit, rather than just, you know, living in them. This view of houses as just a place to stop for a while has been helped along by some very modern lively young things who like to feel they can live anywhere, in a sort of quasi-Buddhist New Age way, not getting attached to mere 'things'. Some of them, understandably, have moved around all their lives and have no real sense of home anyway, but not all of us. Since Tebbitt's 'On Your Bike' speech it has been assumed by the movers and shakers that one shouldn't care where one lives. You just go wherever the work is and if the work moves abroad, well that's just supply and demand again. Start your own business. Be an entrepreneur! What's wrong with you? The Soviets also thought the workforce should be prepared to move wherever the work needed doing. Refugees and asylum seekers have to move wherever they can.

The trouble is I suspect most of us just aren't like that, or would rather not be. I'd be interested to know the figures, but I've come to believe (in flagrant disregard for my parents' thinking) that what I think probably isn't that unusual. I suspect that many of us do care where we live very much, and that for many of us this has a strong connection to the place we were born, where we grew up, and where most of our family and friends are. It's unfashionable to say so, but there you are.
The media don't help. They're used to relocating whenever necessary to pursue their careers so I feel that I'm in a kind of despised minority for being rather attached to where I come from, which is this area around Brighton and the Downs and the countryside beyond. It almost sounds like I might be some sort of Conservative in this respect. Maybe I am. Critics call it Sentimental, which I take to mean 'caring deeply about something I happen not to give a toss about'.

There are all sorts of problems with this view. Generally I have a woolly liberal attitude to immigration but I do understand how people must feel seeing their high street changed completely in just a few years - full of foreign voices and unreadable shop fronts. We don't have a lot of immigrants around here but I'd probably feel something similar if I saw my high street taken over by retail giants or simply cleared away to make a mall but UKIP and the BNP don't seem so bothered about that. I'd feel the same way hanging out with ex pats who can't be bothered to talk to the natives or try the local food, let alone learn the language. But obviously things change, and people are free to move about the world in a way they never were before and all in all I think that's a good thing, but I also think there's something missing - something about history and belonging. Something about home. I don't believe it's a right-wing thing to say that heritage is important, and not just as something to sell to tourists, but as a lived reality. Knowing where you come from - for good or ill gives you context. It doesn't stop you appreciating other people's heritages, in fact, I'd say, without one of your own it's all pretty much channel hopping. Maybe most of you don't agree. Ok, but can I plead then for those of us who do, to be allowed to be this way? Not just have our spiritual homes bought up by Russian oligarchs and media moguls? Please? At the very least it should be possible to rent a place without being forbidden to paint the walls and put up some pictures, and without feeling that you might be kicked out in a years time if the landlord thinks he might make a quick buck by doing so. And there should be some sort of regulations about people buying up property in such a way as to exclude ordinary people from getting a place of their own at a reasonable price. Actually (heretic that I am) I think the countryside could stand a little more building. I wonder how many derelict farm yards and other disused lots there are about the country that the farmers would love to sell but can't because the locals don't like the idea of a lot of working class oiks moving in? I can think of quite a few just in this area. I'd want to put some restrictions on the quality and design of the houses built - make them in keeping with local styles, and environmentally sound, and have some sort of restrictions on resale so that they can't immediately be sold off to someone who wants to turn them into a holiday resort. But that would be interfering with the Freedom of the Market wouldn't it? And we can't have that.

I feel like I was on reasonably solid ground arguing that the Free Market cannot be trusted with housing (unlike many other consumer goods) because everyone needs somewhere decent to live but there isn't enough to go round. On the other hand, arguing that a person should have the option of living where they feel they belong (however you define that) is a shakier line to take I know, but I think there's something in it.
Either way it does seem to me that any developer or local authority simply throwing their hands up and saying "Sorry guv. Supply and demand. End of" is massively negligent. There are quite a few reasons why I think The Free Market Economy can't be trusted to run simply everything but this does seem like a particularly obvious one.