Sunday 2 December 2012

Housing, Room At The Inn?

As well as The Energy Bill, issued under cover of The Leveson Report fracas, there has been the matter of the Government’s thinking, or rather the Civil Service thinking on what to do about housing.  The answer is to build lots more properties.  As space in the urban areas is becoming limited and all that green stuff out there seems little populated the cheap and quick answer, as ever, is to build on that.

This has become mixed up with the issue of migrants and their requirements.  As a citizen of the world my suggestion is that we should leave aside “race” and the related jargon and ideologies, the basic problem is the numbers and the real implications of those numbers, such as feeding them, whoever they are and wherever they come from.

If the Euro crashes and tens of thousands or more one time Brit’s return broke from their enclaves across Europe the chances are they will want to be treated according their expectations.  These include benefits and critically housing roughly of a standard to which they have become accustomed.  Also, they will have votes and may want to use them.

This is only a possible influx, at present the UK is struggling to cope with the effects of incoming large recent groups in one place or another.  What the Labour government forgot in its passion to import supporters for the future was that amongst them were many young people from communities who still married and had numbers of children. 

Also, many of them regard it as the norm to have “oldies” around the house and brought those in as well to add to the traditional pattern of family life that are their customs and religious responsibilities.  Some of them regard our individualism and detachment from both old and young as strange and improper.

For the politicians and the media, holed up in Fort Westminster, our political equivalent of Fort Zinderneuf, they have become pathetically reliant for supplies and sustenance provided by large corporations, especially property and related financial ones of all sorts with crucial interests in building and related lending. 

Inevitably, they tell the battle weary political privates and corporal civil servants on the media battlements that salvation, namely economic growth and employment lies in building, building and more building. 

At the same time we have two, perhaps three, generations of voters who have been led to believe by relentless propaganda that “their” property is sacrosanct and the duty of the state is to subsidise, protect and support them at all costs.

There is a claim that there are a million homes currently vacant, some long term and many whose ownership is uncertain.  The Bona Vacantia listings from The Treasury of unclaimed estates account for a few of these because if there is no eligible claimant at probate then it will be a long time before action is taken.

Also, there are some just left empty, where the owner if known, may not even be paying council tax and leaves it there to gather price appreciation.  Then there are those where the local economy has shrunk so badly that there is not a normal working population.  But all these are just a part of it.

A little while ago, I was looking around holiday cottages etc. to let and checking booking dates, but the patterns I was seeing looked quite odd.  So I did a much larger survey, having the time and wondering if this represented an interesting statistical aberration. It went past the point of that. 

It may well be that there are a great many “holiday cottages” which are rarely let out to the public and those lettings that are booked are possibly false ones within the family for tax purposes.  In short there was some sort of advantage, perhaps a tax wheeze of having a “holiday home” rather than a simple second home ownership. 

Then there are all the “second homes” of different kinds, a feature of the property market that boomed immensely in the times of easy credit.  Some have bet their pensions on this sector.  There are pensioners who still owe large mortgages.  A net result of this is many villages and attractive locations which are part “ghost towns”.

One big nasty problem is the very many properties which have space to spare, depending on how you define it.  There was a row a short while back when one charity concerned with homes for migrants suggested winkling the old age pensioners out of their homes, especially those in social housing, to be downsized and to make room for others.

In the pensioner group are many owners who are cash poor and property rich.  One effect is that many cannot either maintain or heat the homes properly.  Another is that there are people on benefits living in valuable properties with the expectation that the state will support them at that level.

The idea of added higher bands for council tax has been mooted to attempt to bring a fairer basis to the regressive effect of the old levels which is in line with real values.  The immediate reaction was that was outrageously unfair to cash poor people who in capital terms might be million or even multimillionaires and their likely heirs.

If the governments intention to invite millionaire plus Russians to migrate to London to live with tax advantages goes ahead this will certainly help to keep prices up but the expense of all those who cannot afford to begin to buy.  The property market is now so compromised by government action, direct and indirect it has lost its real function.

Historically, the situation now is astonishing.  As someone who has flogged his way round many a census return in most parts of the UK for the period 1841 to 1911 it is instructive to see the numbers resident in most locations.  This does not mean the poorer areas; it means the richer ones as well. 

Just out of interest recently I have looked at a lot of domestic properties in the richest part of London in past Census Returns to match reality against both media impressions and much written history.  Wherever I looked in this category the numbers actually resident in domestic housing between 1841 and 1911 were hugely greater than the comparative figures for today.

Shifting down the scale today there were local small factories and workshops and some larger which once gave long term employment which have been knocked down to be replaced by blocks of flats, shoehorned in and similar to the old Courts of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  This is called “investment” especially when it is social housing.

But doing the head count, for an equivalent amount of housing space then, even with an earning working class resident, the numbers there now, many single persons, are far less comparatively than those in the distant past. 

Essentially, we have become used to and demand from the State housing space, often on benefits, much greater than that of our own history, never mind those elsewhere in the world today and in the past.  How many single mothers are there with fathers who also live singly?

One intriguing difference is that in many of our new flats locally the residents complain bitterly about the lack of and limitations of parking space.  The irony of this is that the flats are within easy walking distance of the town shops, the bus station and the railway station.

Also there is a 1970’s estate of several hundred houses some still occupied by the original residents.  My estimate is that this now has rather less than half the people living there than when the houses were originally occupied. 

What is more to the point is that this whole expansion of living space has been fuelled by high level debts.  The building companies borrow from financial houses operating on highly leveraged debt and speculation.  The properties are sold and fitted out at high margins for purchasers borrowing at much higher multiples of earnings than in the past.

The social housing notably in the Housing Associations is also marked by major debt again normally at historically very high levels.  In the leasehold sector property management services might be owned by financial agencies again operating on high leverage. 

Behind all this are hidden subsidies from a government whose own debt is rising steadily.  The possibility that the increasing numbers could or should be largely absorbed in the existing housing stock by active reforms is not one that any party or vested interest is willing to entertain.

Yet despite all this we are being told that we must continue to build and to build on agricultural land.  The TV programme “Wartime Farm” reminded us of a recent past when food supplies became critically scarce and every scrap of land was needed to grow food for the very limited rations we were given.

In the late 1940’s the problem was not the U Boats or the availability of shipping, it was that nationally we could not afford to return to the levels of food imports that had been characteristic of the 1930’s.

There have been other times in the past when food shortages, hunger and sometimes starvation were the lot of the poor both in urban and rural life.  The last three or four decades of the 20th Century are the only time in our history when food prices were at such a low proportion of average incomes.

As well as trying to keep the property price boom going at all costs our leaders tell us that there is no problem of food supply security.  This is not the picture some of us are getting from present trends in food production, distribution or prices.

Wait and see.

1 comment:

  1. "It may well be that there are a great many “holiday cottages” which are rarely let out to the public"

    Funnily enough, we've noticed that too. We also notice silent villages which seem empty, possibly because they are mostly holiday homes.