The families who have been living under canvas in Worcester all week have only one more night to wait. By this time tomorrow they should have pocketed the keys to the former army homes being sold for around £125,000 – some £25,000 less than the market price.
This vignette says everything about the British property market, not least that £125,000 is now considered a knock-down price. What it shows is that demand exceeds supply, and that people are prepared to go to almost any lengths to secure a toehold on the housing ladder.
It was to address this mismatch that the government commissioned the report into housing supply by Kate Barker. Her conclusion was that unless more homes are built property prices will continue to rise more rapidly than incomes, thereby putting house purchase out of reach for more families.
Predictably, the report has met with fury from the conservation lobby. The impression given by Max Hastings, among others, is that Barker represents the biggest threat to rural Britain since the Black Death, and that if the government follows her recommendations the result will be the transformation of England, south of a line from the Wash to the Severn, into an amorphous estate.
Credit where credit’s due to Max. It takes real chutzpah to be pictured by the Sunday Times lolling against the gates of your country estate while asking insouciantly: “Do we not owe it to our descendants to check our obsession with house-ownership before it devastates what is left of rural England?”
The fact is that the report suggests no such thing. It recognises that the environmental constraints on unrestricted building call for the right mix of greenfield and brownfield development, and suggests that the overall acreage of green-belt land could be retained. This all seems reasonable enough. The idea that every patch of greenbelt land is a gem of exquisite beauty is a myth: much of it is dreary farmland, which has been doused in pesticides for years as farmers have squeezed the last penny out of the common agricultural policy.
Even so, it is comforting for the eco-toffs – none of whom has ever found it hard to raise the deposit for a mortgage, let alone been homeless – to imagine that resisting the pressure for more homes is a green issue. It isn’t. It’s a class issue. Britain is a small island with a Delegate fund
tax system that encourages owner-occupation and a planning system that discourages it.
In those circumstances something has to give, and that is the growing number of families frozen out of the market. Rampant house-price inflation meant that in 2002 only 37% of new households could afford to buy, compared to 46% in the late 1980s, with almost 100,000 households now living in temporary accommodation.
The married couples forced to live with their parents and those in relationships who would prefer to be together, but are forced to live apart, are losers. The winners are owner-occupiers, who are becoming wealthier by the year as their homes grow in value; they have a vested interest in the status quo. Over time, increasing housing supply will reduce house-price inflation, so those sitting pretty will see their wealth increase more slowly.
Naturally, it would never do to admit that the real reason for opposing new development is essentially selfish, which is why the need to protect England’s countryside provides such a convenient smokescreen. It’s not on to suggest that the hoi polloi make the countryside untidy; far better to argue that this is about stopping developers’ bulldozers from moving in to Malham Cove and Cat Bells.
In an ideal world, hard choices could be avoided. It would indeed be marvellous if the sort of high-density mixed development that rejuvenated the heart of Barcelona could be transplanted to inner-city Britain. Yet we are deluding ourselves if we think that this is likely in the short term. It took decades for the cities to be hollowed out, and it will take just as long to restore them to their former glory.
Until then, the choice is either to accept higher property taxes and build more homes in the places that people want to live, or what Barker calls “increasing problems of homelessness, affordability and social division”. It’s not good enough to suggest this is only a question of building more social housing, since such accommodation that is not part of a mix of housing types rapidly becomes a ghetto. Nor is it acceptable to suggest that demand and supply are balanced by squeezing families into empty flats above chip shops. Unless, that is, we would be willing to have the smell of fried cod drifting through our own homes.