Tag Archives: housing

Russell Brand and the media

It is almost pointless in writing an article about Russell Brand. Opinions are so divided about him that his haters seem to eat up every criticism of him no matter how stupid while his supporters seem to shrug off any criticism as if it’s all some grand conspiracy.

I’m not a Russell Brand fan, and at some point I may well bore on at length about why. For now though, I’m going to focus on his latest spat on Channel 4 News with reporter Paraic O’Brien.

Outside 10 Downing Street where Russell Brand was presenting a petition with residents from the New Era estate in protest at Westbrook Partners buying up their homes, O’Brien pressed Brand over his own living arrangements. An visibly irritated Brand evaded all questioning on the matter, pulled a protester into the shot to defend him and then stalked off, calling O’Brien a “snide”.

So far, so predictably divisive. Brand’s critics will leap on this as evidence of his hypocrisy, Brand’s supporters will attack it as the media attempting to discredit it so as to continue their neoliberal agenda.

Yet the fact is that if you watch the full report shown on Channel 4 News, it by no means focused on Brand. Instead, it was a genuine attempt to draw out the bigger picture. Leaving aside boring accusations of hypocrisy, the fact is that London’s inflated rental market is the real story here, making Russell Brand’s own living arrangements relevant. These wider issues are now struggling to gain attention, with Russell Brand’s behaviour in front of a camera once again dominating the story.

I would genuinely suggest to Brand that he gets some media training. The thing is, not only were Paraic O’Brien’s questions reasonable, but with a bit of preparation, Brand could have responded with something reasonable. He could have said something along the lines of “I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford my rent but if Westbrook are allowed to put up the rents of residents on this Estate, many people will be forced out of their homes. There are wider problems about the cost of housing in London which urgently need to be tackled and hopefully this campaign can help force this issue up the agenda and force politicians to listen.” If pressed, he could have said something like, “Yes, the amount of rent I’m able to pay for my luxury flat is part of the problem; so is the cost of your home. Ultimately this isn’t about one home or even one housing estate, but the bigger issue of housing in London.”

Okay, maybe it lacks a certain Russell Brand panache. Indeed, the fact it is a little dull is kind of the point.

Of course, this practice of staying on message is exactly the sort of thing politicians do. I can understand that might feel that indulging in such practices would be to play the media game. But it seems to me that if you want publicity (and he could quite easily evade publicity if he wanted) you have two choices: play the game or get played. The latter is what seems to be happening. Unless it was Brand’s intention all along to steal the limelight from the New Era residents, he can’t possibly be happy with the press his interview has garnered, which relegates the actual issue to paragraph 8. If he’d kept his calm, the New Era protestors might have been deemed less newsworthy, but at least it wouldn’t have been used simply to deflect attention away from the actual issue.

Of course, all this assumes that Brand actually believes there is a wider picture about London housing, and that the New Era estate controversy is the part of something greater and not just a unique story about corporate greed.

Even leaving aside the tactics of it all, one thing I don’t understand is how it squares up with Brand’s own calls for greater spirituality. Because surely the spiritual answer to “are you part of the problem” is always “yes”? Surely the solution always starts with the individual? Yet despite hearing Brand talk endlessly in abstract about how we are all one, and that our egos, greed and selfishness ultimately only work against us, when it comes to politics, he only ever seems to talk about Them vs Us. I’m genuinely mystified about how he can reconcile the two, because on the surface of it his political agenda is less spiritual than the most cynical Westminster hack. Perhaps I should read his book, but by all accounts it won’t actually answer my question.

“Help to buy” undermines the very purpose of the Lib Dems in government

AlexanderUnlike a lot of disgruntled former Lib Dems (and, for that matter, disgruntled current Lib Dems), I still have a lot of time and sympathy for the party. I still think that joining the coalition was the right thing to do. I see the Lib Dems stopping Tory madness on a daily basis and anyone who doesn’t accept this must either deluded or plain dishonest. I oppose many of the welfare reforms, but recognise that with Labour offering virtually no opposition on the subject and public opinion very much in favour, there is not a whole lot they could really do.

And while I’m distinctly uneasy about George Osborne’s economic policies and the Lib Dems’ support for it, I will give him this: even if he wanted to adopt a dramatically different approach, the combined forces of Germany and the financial markets would make it exceedingly difficult for him to do so. And while it’s possible the recovery would have been swifter if we had borrowed more and cut less, I can’t honestly say that I know this to be true.

But much of my respect for the Lib Dems’ work in government is rooted in the fact that it was a responsible decision in the face of economic chaos. It stops right at the point where I think they start signing up to policies which are economically irresponsible. And that brings us to this “help to buy” scheme.

I am hardly the first person to point out that inflating house prices at this time to help people to take out mortgages in an untargeted way will simply help to increase property prices in an unsustainable way and price even more people out of the market altogether. I was alarmed to hear Danny Alexander on the radio this morning denying that the current rate of unaffordable house prices was even a problem and insist that all that was needed was easier access to mortgages. To hear him wistfully talk about how he got a 95% mortgage “25 years ago” (which meant he got his first mortgage when he was 16, incidentally), made it sound as if the Lib Dem policy was now simply a case of returning to the old housing boom fuelled economics of the last few decades and had lost all interest in learning from those excesses.

Housing was one of Labour’s greatest failures. More than anything, their failure to get Britain building during the noughties both heightened the boom and deepened the inevitable bust. And of course, the housing benefit bill would not have escalated in the way it has done. Yet, tellingly, this is one area of policy the coalition have failed to attack Labour on. In the case of the Conservative wing, the reason is fairly obvious: they are engaged in class warfare and very much see the retention of an economy in which the elite’s rent-based wealth is preserved. Historically, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats stood against that sort of thing, at least in the 20th century. Cynics like myself bemoan that Clegg and his former adviser Richard Reeves are part of a faction within the Lib Dems that consider the 20th century Liberals an aberration and see themselves as merely the heirs to Gladstone. It is hard to dispute that when you hear them talking about this issue.

The 2010 Lib Dem manifesto had this to say about the economy:

Fairness is an essential British value. It is at the centre of how the vast majority of British people live their lives, but it has been forgotten by those at the top. Instead, greed and self-interest have held sway over the government and parts of the economy in recent decades. They have forgotten that growth must be shared and sustainable if it is to last.

It would appear that in government, the Lib Dems themselves have forgotten that lesson very quickly indeed. Justifying your role in government as having to tackle the economic crisis is one thing; setting the foundations for the next economic crisis is quite another.

Quality of Life (3) – Communities, Activities and Mental Health

This is the continuation of my series of posts in response to the Lib Dems’ Quality of Life consulation paper. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.

16. How can we actively promote ‘good neighbour’ policies?
Noting that word “actively” my response is that we shouldn’t. More equal societies tend to be more trusting societies but I’m not sure there’s much we can or should do to force people to be good neighbours.

The one thing we could do is scrap all legislation that is designed to tackle this thing called “anti-social behaviour.” Criminal behaviour is a different matter, but we need to avoid giving people the impression that it is the role of the state to intervene when it comes to naughty or irritating behaviour.

Another thing that might help would be to move away from gated communities and sprawling housing estates and promote mixed housing wherever possible. I simply can’t see what will stop people from drifting apart on socio-economic lines however if we don’t have some way of discouraging it via, say a land value tax system (i.e. you can have that gated community if you are willing to pay wider society for the privilege).

17. Should government provide greater financial support for community activities – community spaces, clubs, other collective activities? Should it provide other support? If so, what?

Again, rather than doing more it might be an idea if government did less. The Independent Safeguarding Authority is an example of an interference too far in this respect.

18. Should we try to increase significantly the status of those who carry out voluntary activities? If so, how? Should some kind of honours or rewards system play a role? If we increased the status of these activities, would we reduce the stigma attached to unemployment?

If something is rewarded it ceases to be voluntary. I certainly believe that unemployed people should be encouraged – and certainly not be penalised – for doing voluntary work. Perhaps we could combine job centres with time banks (but if Mrs Miggins can’t leave her home, how will she notify the job centre that she needs her shopping done?).

Ultimately though, we don’t want “voluntary” work to be restricted to unemployed people because they have nothing better to do. If we want to avoid such volunteering to lose status as more unemployed people take it up, we have to find ways to encourage employed people to participate too.

I can’t see that there is much national government can do however. The answer, surely, is decentralisation and allow local government to experiment.

19. How can we ensure everyone, including people of diverse ages, ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or ability is included and welcome in the life of their community? How do we combat prejudice while respecting difference?

This is like the “good neighbours” question. I’m not sure there is anything active we can do about this at all. What we need is to break down barriers, which is why I think mixed communities are crucial.

20. Watching large amounts of TV is a major contributor to lower wellbeing. What is the right Liberal Democrat approach to discouraging or limiting it?

We need to make our minds up. Either British TV is the best in the world and a public service, or it is trash that we should discourage people from watching.

TV is on the decline and increasing numbers of people are turning to the internet. This may be a problem that is solving itself as mass media becomes more interactive.

The simplest way to discourage poor people from watching television is to replace the licence fee with subscription television. That way, a number of people – especially older people – will be priced out of watching. But if my grandmother is anything to go by, Eastenders and Countdown are a great comfort to them. Taking the goggle box away from them is certainly unlikely to be popular.

21. How do we combat loneliness, and in particular the isolation of the elderly?

Again, more mixed communities and a more equal society will help.

I’m actually relatively optimistic about this for the future. I strongly suspect this will be much less of a problem for my generation in old age as we will have the internet and a range of opportunities to explore our interests and long distance relationships (assuming climate change hasn’t sent us back to the stone age of course). Even my parents’ generation will have made strides towards this.

22. Should more public money be spent on improving the appearance of local areas?

Again, that is a local matter. Are we talking broken windows theory here? Certainly I can see a case for local authorities responding to vandalism as quickly as possible. But once again, if young people lived in a more equal society where they felt like stakeholders instead of trespassers we would probably see less vandalism.

23. How should government be involved in promoting good mental health?

Greater experts than me will, I’m sure, make specific suggestions. Again I feel the need to point out that the evidence suggests that more equal societies face fewer mental health problems.

24. How can we use education to enhance public understanding about mental health issues?

I certainly would not support adding yet another clause to the national curriculum. If people were taught critical thinking more in schools, it would almost certainly help as they would be less prone to prejudice and I would be happy to see whole swathes of curriculum trashed to make way for this to be on the core syllabus.

Ultimately however, we should leave teachers to get on with it and encourage them to learn from each other.

25. If we make mental health treatment a much higher priority for government spending – do we spend more on health or make cut-backs elsewhere?

This sounds like a false dichotomy to me. Mental health appears to be linked to physical health problems – it thus follows that more investment in the former will lead to savings in the latter.

26. How do drugs and alcohol impact on mental health? What should government do to reduce demand or supply?

Not a lot. We need to be treating people when they’re down not treading on them.

The experience in places such as the Netherlands is that decriminalising drugs leads to a reduction in usage simply because people get less trapped in the criminal justice system. Alcohol is a more intractable problem and alcohol abuse seems to be more a symptom of wider problems than a problem in itself.

How do we deal with that? Empowering local authorities to take a firmer grasp of their licensing policies would be a start. Designing pubs so that they cater more for talking and families and are less Viking drinking halls would help too.

One idea might be to lower the drinking age on real ale and wine in pubs (to 16?), while retaining the 18 age for things like spirits, alco-pops, cider and lager. I’m serious. If we encouraged young people to acquire a taste for proper alcoholic drinks they would be less tempted to blag things like Bacardi Breezers that taste like soft drinks and promote binge drinking. As a positive by-product, it would also help local breweries.

If you’re not cop, you’re little people.

With the Convention on Modern Liberty now less than a week away, the Sunday papers have been filled with revelations about MP’s making extraordinary claims on their Additional Costs Allowance. I can’t help but feel the two are inextricably linked.

I’ve spent pretty much my whole career defending politicians – first as a paid party organiser and, more recently, working for a cross-party pressure group. I still believe in representative democracy (although I’m aware it has its limitations), I still believe that political parties are necessary (ditto). I defend the right of MPs to draw out of pocket expenses (indeed many ‘expenses’ are in fact office costs); I would even defend ministers having access to the car pool. But I find it extraordinary at how the political class, as a whole, seems to go out of its way to render itself indefensible (and while there are plenty of honorable exceptions, it does appear to be the class as a whole – why else is it that when we hear about the latest scandals about a few bad apples, no action seems to get taken?). The key question is why?

The main problem appears to be a total disconnect with the public. Has this always been the case? I think it probably has, but as the age of deference has come to an end, politicians have only discovered the values in mouthing platitudes about being the servants of the people. Making the actual changes necessary to make it a reality still escapes them.

So it is that Michael Ancram, the 13th Marquess of Lothian and Earl of Ancram, can claim that painting his mansion is “an additional expense which wouldn’t normally occur” if he wasn’t an MP and keep a completely straight face (my other favourite line is ‘He said he was “very careful” and had always taken “satisfaction” in not claiming all his expenses.’ – as if it is okay to fiddle expenses so long as you do it slightly less than somebody else). So it is that Jacqui Smith can max out her expenses paying for her sisters home and be completely nonplussed over what everyone is so annoyed at her for.

The most outrageous thing about the ongoing scandals over Additional Costs Allowance is that the solution is not only simple, but largely government policy. We already operate a scheme whereby ‘key workers’ such as nurses can have a proportion of their new homes bought by the government so that they can afford to live in areas where they are needed but property prices are sky high. When they sell up, the taxpayer gets the equity back (and makes a tidy sum if the property doubles in value). There is nothing – absolutely nothing – to stop MPs from operating a simily equity scheme. Indeed it was actually suggested by a number of MPs as part of a review run by the Speaker last year. Yet the suggestion was rejected out of hand. What possible reason did they have for doing that, other than simple greed (if MPs think they should be better paid and that in lieu of that fiddling expenses is adequate compensation, then let them say so)?

When you are so disconnected from reality, when you have reached a point where all this sort of thing seems normal, is it really any wonder that they value civil liberties so cheaply? If you regard the public as proles who need to be protected for their own good and regard yourself as something else, then why wouldn’t you?

In short, we have reinvented feudalism while no-one was looking (the subservient role local government plays in relation to national government is another aspect of this). Part of the reason it has happened is rooted in our electoral system. Listening to MPs talk about the “constituency link” in semi-mystical terms is extremely reminiscent of how a squire might talk about his God-given stewardship of his fiefdom. Indeed, this is a relatively recent phenomenon; a century ago, MPs generally regarded the constituency as, at best, an inconvenience. These days, MPs seem to be obsessed with casework, at the clear expense of performing their constitutional role as a member of the legislature. MPs then aren’t just condescending about their constituents; they end up with less time to actually scrutinse legislation.

The problem with all this is it isn’t sustainable. With the economy in the parlous state it is in, there is a faint whiff of revolution in the air which looks set to grow stronger as times goes on. Revolutions rarely end well for anyone, and most in reality get pre-empted before they actually happen, yet the political establishment appears to have losts the flexibility which it is famous for. We aren’t getting reform; we aren’t even being given the illusion of reform.

I went to see Mark Thomas live on Thursday. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t help but notice that after years of being a cuddly national institution, pulling crazy stunts for the entertainment of the chattering classes, he had a regained certain edge. I have a feeling this is what he was like in the eighties before Channel Four took him under its wing. At times, he simply descended into swearing tirades. Now, I seriously doubt that Mark Thomas will become a latter day Cromwell or Lenin, but it was notable at how indulgent the audience was of this.

As a professional campaigner, it is my job to whip up a bit of revolutionary zeal. I’m proud of the part I played in forcing Parliament to back down over its attempt to exempt its expenses from the Freedom of Information Act last month. But I’m aware that with such anger out there the chances of it resulting in actual riots (such as we saw in Greece at the end of last year) are starting to increase. The one thing violence on the streets is unlikely to result in is the a government u-turn on its anti-civil liberties agenda; quite the reverse. And the public; already whipped into a frenzy about crime, terrorism and immigration, will probably go along with that.

My big hope is that the Convention will wake people up to the wider agenda. If the agenda is purely negative – i.e. to stop the government attacking civil liberties and to scrap its existing agenda for a database state – then it will a) be less effective and b) fail to connect with this wider sense of dissatisfaction. We need to link the two, which means both talking about constitutional reform and a more engaged, proactive citizenry.

One Year On: Orange Bookers Found Wanting

If the newspapers are anything to go by, Nick Clegg has taken the party irreversibly to the right; we are all economic liberals now.

Strange then that, on the day Clegg marks his first year as leader he unveils a policy of purist Keynsianism. Still, as the old saying goes: if you have a reputation as an early riser you can lie in until noon.

The Green Road Out Of Recession is not merely not a tax cut – it is an alternative to a tax cut. That low rumbling noise you can here is David Laws’ teeth grinding.

But I am here to praise Clegg, not bury the so-called Orange Bookers. I was relatively supportive in principle of a VAT cut; a VAT cut is better than the Tory plan to do nothing. The Green Road Out of Recession is better still.

Cobden’s complaint that the money won’t be spent immediately is, to use his choice turn of phrase “utter bollocks.” If the UK government were committed to this plan, it could start handing out cash to private contractors within a matter of days. That would mean saving real jobs at a vulnerable time; jobs and skills that no fiscal stimulus could save.

Reading through it all (pdf), it really is a great piece of policy work, matching campaign objectives with specific costings. In short, it is everything Make it Happen and Clegg’s ill-advised blagging about vast bulky tax cuts was not. On top of that, it offers economic relief in the short term followed by a boost to our environmental and social goals in the longer term. Steve Webb deserves hearty congratulations. It kicks caboose.

Fundamentally, it shows that for all his talk about not wanting statist solutions, there is still a real place for precisely that. In this case, one of purest economics, the more rightwing economic liberals simply have nothing to say. They’re whole case is built on a presumption on excess capacity and endless growth; as soon as both those presumptions go out of the window all they can do is stare dumbly.

So at end of a… variable year, I find myself with a big smile on my face. A clear sign that we are going in the right direction at last. Here’s hoping the next twelve months will have a lot more days like today in it.

What do the Scottish Greens and Guido have in common?

Both today are calling for Land Value Taxation, or at least they seem to be.

The Scottish Greens certainly are. Municipal tax reform in Scotland remains in deadlock and dependent on at least one other party agreeing with the principle of local income tax. That seems unlikely at the moment, even if the Lib Dems capitulate over the SNP’s insistence of greater centralisation (which does not look likely; what would they gain except appalling policy?).

Meanwhile, Guido is raving about the reprinting of Fred Harrison’s Boom Bust: House Prices, Banking and the Depression of 2010 (Guido also pats himself on the back at his prescience for predicting the housing crash in September 2007; modesty prevents me from mentioning that my first blog post on the subject was July 2006 and frankly I could have told you what was going to happen a long time before then).

Fred Harrison? You might remember me linking to this video earlier in the year. Harrison, aka the renegade economist, is a keen exponent of land value taxation and regards it as a crucial tool in the armoury against boom and bust cycles (actually, as the video indicates, he goes a lot further than that).

So yes Guido, Gordon Brown was very very wrong. But somehow I doubt your mate Gideon Osborne is going to be interested in Harrison’s prescription. The son of a baronet and Shadow Chancellor for the Conservative Party, it is his job to protect vested interests, not challenge them.

Just call me Mr Rigsby

It’s been an eventful week for me. Last Sunday I was still officially a lucky escaper of the credit crunch. The lucky co-owner of an unwanted, brand spanking new flat (notice how I have reverted to “flat” – as opposed to apartment – as the credit crunch has set in), we were all set to sell the thing to some bloke. We weren’t likely to make any money (oh how naive I was back in April), but we weren’t likely to lose anything (well, very much) either and wanted to sell up as quickly as possible so we could afford a mortgage on a property more fitting with our needs. I was itching for the day I could use this title for a blog post: “and with one leap he was free.”

Except the bloke we were at the closing stages of selling to clearly got a better offer because he turned around to our estate agent on Monday and demanded we knock ten grand off the asking price. Since that would have rendered the whole exercise pointless (we only bought the thing because we had a fifteen grand deposit on it), we pulled out and went back to Plan B – specifically rent the thing out and sell up when the market (hopefully) recovers in a couple of years. One eager beaver letting agent later and our new tenant is to move in next Monday – hence the scrabbling around this weekend sorting out furniture, white goods and curtains so the place is at least liveable in.

I’ve become the thing (other than middle-class wanker obsessed with the value of his property portfolio) I least wanted to be in life – an absentee landlord (it’s deeply ironic that, having spent years in LDYS campaigning for a tenancy protection scheme, I end up discovering we now have one in law by having to use it as a landlord myself). Our new tenant earns more than me for fuck’s sake. What’s worse, I’m not even likely to be making any money out of it (although Uncle Vince may help there). Aside from the significant money we’ve just spent equipping the place, we will essentially be a grand down a year. In essence, we are gambling on the value going up faster than that by the time we sell and we are more or less stuck where we are currently living until that happens. Suddenly the credit crunch feels very real. It looks like its going to end up being SO bad we might actually meet our Kyoto targets. Sheesh.

But still, joking aside, as members of the middle class we can cope. We have parents and support networks. Galling though it all is, it hardly ranks higher than inconvenient. We aren’t going to end up starving. For a lot more people it is going to be much more brutal. That debate last month about tax cuts now seems appallingly anachronistic.

Property Prices and Jon Henley

I meant to blog about Jon Henley’s essay in the Guardian the other day about the housing market but didn’t get round to it. However, watching the second half of the first part of his TV series on Channel 4 last night has spurred me into action.

Generally, I was disappointed with the article and disappointed with the programme. The latter was a very cosy fit with Channel 4’s usual output of Housing Porn, only with a guilty edge. The entire programme was spliced together with gorgeous aerial views of housing estates and London skylines. When Henley visited a £40m home, the tone was positively orgasmic. I’m not suggesting that Henley himself felt this way, but clearly someone on the production team is a Location, Location, Location refugee. Fundamentally though, the programme didn’t really say very much. I’m amazed they are spreading this out over several weeks – there simply isn’t enough content to justify it.

Happily the article itself is much less vaseline lensed and to the point. Henley’s analysis of the problem is entirely sound and will sound familiar to readers of this blog. The problem is, he doesn’t really go into the solutions, is dismissive of the the most important one and misunderstands the nature of the eco-towns debate.

Adam Sampson, the Chief Exec of Shelter, does a pretty spot on analysis of what the problem is:

“Essentially, what has happened in this country is that we’ve confused home ownership with the acquisition of wealth. Those two concepts, which should be distinct, have become irrevocably yoked together. It shows plainly in the reasons people give for wanting to buy: 30 or 40 years ago, you bought a home for security, stability, status, to gain control over your life. Now you do it to acquire wealth. And that has been encouraged as an article of faith across the political spectrum. It really has been the equivalent of the South Sea Bubble, or the Dutch tulip bulb hysteria.”

He then provides Henley with a pretty spot-on analysis of what should be done about it:

“There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with home ownership, particularly if the alternative is expensive private renting with a maximum of six months’ security of tenure, or increasingly residual social housing. Home ownership encourages stability and social stakeholding. But in recent years my house has earned far more than I have. I work and am taxed; it doesn’t and is not. Is that justifiable?”

But rather than really engage with this issue, Henley retorts:

There are problems with this option. If you tax the profit made on selling a primary residence, what do you do about a loss?

But this isn’t what Sampson and Shelter are proposing at all. They aren’t saying that only profits should be taxed after a sale, but property values on an ongoing basis.

It’s a shame he doesn’t explore the option of a property tax (or even land tax, which Adam Sampson has indicated support of in the past), because it may provide an answer to the problem he sees with protests over eco-towns:

But no matter how valid the arguments, it’s hard to believe that [the anti-eco town campaign in Stratford-upon-Avon’s] opposition is not also reinforced by nimbyism. Protesters here do fear for their house prices, and several sales have fallen through since the ecotown plan was announced. “Fundamentally, it’s about preserving our existing environment,” confesses Clive Moy, a retired chartered surveyor. “Most of us chose to live here, in this wonderful countryside, and the last thing we want is a new town in the middle of it.”

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become less tolerant of the dismissal of anyone who opposes a development as being a “nimby.” As a former resident of Warwickshire, I’m pretty sceptical of the area’s ability to support a major new development as well (the commute from Leamington Spa to Stratford by public transport was a bastard…), and how can they become anything but dormitory towns?

Fundamentally, it is entirely reasonable for someone who chose to live in X to not want X to change – that’s why they moved there in the first place. And having your property values take a dive is a very rational reason to object to the building of a development. It is a question of compensation. A proper land value tax would provide that compensation in two ways: by reducing tax bills from people whose properties have lost value and by collecting tax from new the new properties. The problem is that because our current property taxes are so low (and only tangentially related to value), the benefit of more housing to a local community is pretty minor and largely dependent on the benevolence of national government. There is no direct benefit, so no wonder people are sceptical. Inversely, when we build new infrastructure such as new schools or rail links, local people who had made no investment into the project unfairly benefit.

So instead of dismissing anyone who objects to a new development as automatically being a nimby, it’s high time we started looking at things from their point of view. Local people are stakeholders and should be treated as such.

Tim Leunig: “unworkable, unreasonable and perhaps plain barmy”? (UPDATE)

The Guardian is getting itself into a lather attacking the “Tories’ favourite thinktank” for suggesting that Northern towns are failures. What they don’t report is that the pamphlet in question is co-written by the Lib Dems’ own Tim Leunig.

The summary of the pamphlet does indeed sound quite provocative. The idea that people should simply follow the money and that national governments shouldn’t examine why northern towns have failed to get themselves out of a decades-long economic slump and should instead encourage people to follow the money down south seems entirely unworkable. Where are all these northern incomers to London, Cambridge and Oxford supposed to live for one thing? Isn’t the south under enough pressure as it is at the moment? And somehow I suspect that paying people from the north to move south while southerners themselves are priced out of their neighbourhoods is likely to go down like a bucket of cold sick. But I will suspend my judgement until I read what they are actually proposing rather than the Guardian spin.

UPDATE: I’ve just read the exec summary of this report and the Guardian spin is balls. I’m not necessarily saying I agree with all of it, but much of it is very welcome. Will blog more later.

My life as a member of the grasping classes

A blogger who shall remain nameless wrote on my Facebook wall on the day that my partner and I bought our new apartment: “Congratulations on joining the grasping classes! Pah.”

Ouch. Over the last few months, the significance of this comment has started to sink in. On Friday for instance I was at a friend’s birthday dinner party. As my friends dribbled in, I was asked four separate times how selling the apartment was going. Each time this resulted in me reflexively talking about the housing market, negative equity, tax, estate agents, the whole kaboodle. And each time I realised that it was stuff I was genuinely concerned about. On the fourth occasion it suddenly hit me like a bolt from the blue: I am now officially that bore at dinner parties I used to avoid who wanted to talk about house prices. My friends are now officially those boring people who actually initiate conversations about house prices.

And the worst thing is, we don’t even live in the fucking apartment! There’s nothing wrong with it, only that it is a one bedroom affair and there are two of us. We own it because my partner put a deposit down on a new flat that hadn’t yet been built during our first month of going out together, way back in 2005 when the housing market was still buoyant and it didn’t seem like much of a risk. Then one month before exchanging contracts in the summer of 2006, the fucking thing burned down (coincidentally, Lord Levy – whose own offices burned down a few months before in mysterious circumstances – was helping police with their inquiries in Colindale Police Station next door to the apartment building). We didn’t actually get to buy the thing – and we stood to lose a big deposit if we didn’t – until January this year. As you will no doubt be aware, since then the housing market has been, well, not great.

So I now pay more attention to news reports about house prices and the Bank of England than I ever have done before. A quarter of a percentage point can now raise or lower my spirits of a morning. I get palpitations each time I look at my bank account online and see a big red six figure sum glaring at me.

The simple fact is, we aren’t really doing that badly. The advantage of buying property at 2005 prices is that even with house prices wobbling at the moment we are unlikely to actually lose money (although making money is looking like it would take a minor miracle at the moment). And let’s face it, we have privileged enough backgrounds to be able to put up with the inconvenience and the anxiety for a few months. I’m acutely aware that there are people for whom the state of the housing market has a tangible effect on their quality of life. Far from becoming inured to the way our whole economy is underpinned by property prices, becoming a property owner has just made me realised what a crock it really is. At least I’m getting to see its full awfulness before in a few years time I become at one with my class and start working the system to my full advantage.

(the saddest thing is I just went back through this article and changed the word “flat” into “apartment” – I’ve become the most pathetic wanker ever)