When thinking about political issues, one normally thinks of Health, Education, Pensions, Jobs. Then there are specialist subjects, agriculture, the environment, war and peace. But over the last ten years one of the major issues in Welsh politics which has not been resolved is that of housing.*
It seems that there are houses being built everywhere, but government reports continuously refer to ‘the lack of housing’, and if you ask most people on the doorstep (as I do regularly) the lack of affordable housing is a huge concern.
But therein lies the problem. That of affordable housing.
The issue of affordability is a funny one. In effect it is false economics. The value of the house isn’t the value of the sum of its total parts, but is instead whatever someone is willing to pay for it. Its value increases or decreases depending on multiple factors – schools, jobs, transport, yet regardless of where they are house prices always seem to be higher than what most ‘local’ people can afford. The farther from the economic centre you are the cheaper the house, but still the level of affordability remains beyond the locals.
The reasons given for the movement of peoples are manyfold. There are house buyers who buy homes for holidaying purposes, or the affordability compared to their home towns, better levels of services, greater sense of community etc. Other less fortunate people don’t have such control over the move. In many cases certain Local Authorities deem that some people are undesirable and pose too many problems, and they therefore pass them onto other Authorities with a fistful of money to assist in the settling in. The one that sticks in my mind is Brighton and Hove’s attempts at social engineering, paying people £3500 to move to Wales.
Whatever people’s reasons for moving – and I know that they are varied and many, after all I’ve lived in more towns than I can remember, including in a third world country – if you ask people about the issue of housing, the same ‘examples’ crop up, those of ‘scroungers’, ‘dossers’, and most recently of course economic migrants from across Europe.
We always pick on those at the bottom, those that need a roof over their heads most and those that, given the choice, would probably rather not be here either.
But these people are not the problem, and we are picking the wrong fight.
We shouldn’t forget that it was the housing market, encouraged by Labour’s light touch regulation of the Financial sector and its mortgage companies that largely got us into the current economic mess. This economic catastrophe has in turn given the self-interested Tories and Lib Dems the perfect excuse to decimate our public services and mould the state into a tool for the rich.
The people at the bottom of the pile are at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords, and battle with what are often unhealthy living conditions. Given the choice they would much rather be with their families. Added to this Thatcher’s ‘Right To Buy’ and the diminishing social housing stock, then we can see why there is a problem. The Tories big mantra of ‘Choice’ is not an option readily available to the poorest.
The problem with affordable housing over the last ten years is that we were lulled into a false sense of economic prosperity believing that we were successful entrepreneurs because our financial worth on paper had shot through the roof, when in fact we did nothing to deserve this sudden rise in capital value and were in fact sitting on a bubble that was waiting to burst. We played into the hands of greedy financiers, buying mortgages which we couldn’t pay back through our wages but which we assumed would become affordable as the value of our homes got higher. A completely unsustainable economy which would collapse as soon as creditors asked for their money back, resulting in people defaulting and mortgage lenders failing to pay their creditors. And it did, in dramatic fashion.
So what is the answer? There are many answers, much more than I have space or time to write here. But here are some thoughts in order to start a discussion.
- Don’t blame the poorest or economic migrants for the greed of a few is the first obvious answer.
- Secondly, light touch regulation (depending on the market to regulate itself) doesn’t work. The market isn’t interested in affordability or equality of opportunity, but instead wants to profit as quickly as possible. It is a voracious beast, which if left to its own devices will not be tamed. Financial markets needs strict Government regulation.
- No mortgage lender should be allowed to provide a mortgage of more than 3 times the income, simply because we’ve seen the devastation wrought on communities when the market collapses and people can’t afford to pay back.
- More land should be bought under public ownership, and held in trust for the public good. Land ownership is concentrated in the hands of too few people meaning that development opportunities are limited. Public land could be rented out at an affordable rate to home owners, bringing money into the community and allowing the community to control the property values.
- Empty second homes should be taxed at a far greater rate.
- Stamp duty should be valued to reflect the locality of the purchaser.
My aim is to give people real choice. If we weren’t so greedy and insist on getting as much money as possible at every opportunity then we wouldn’t need such legislation, but we are greedy, and in order to allow everyone that equality of opportunity such policies must be considered in order that our communities may thrive and grow organically without being allowed to die because of market forces. After all the current system is failing society miserably. Isn’t it about time we did things differently?
* Deputy Housing Minister Jocelyn Davies, Plaid Cymru, worked tirelesly to allow the transfer of powers over housing to the National Assembly from Westminster but was blocked by the Conservatives. Shame on them!