Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Genuine Conservative Values

London Central Portfolio Ltd, a "Residential Funds and Asset Management" company, predict that small central London flats will cost £36 million by 2050.

Now these people are not seers, nor possessed of great wisdom. Many things can happen in a global economy over a span of 40 years and, besides, their pronouncements are made out of self-interest.

Still, this prediction is by no means inconceivable.

The inflation of London’s house prices of course spreads far beyond Mayfair or Bloomsbury.

Small flats in Plaistow – by no stretch of the imagination the "prime centre" – now sell for close to or more than a quarter of a million pounds – and are likely to be purchased as "buy to let" investments, with high rents and insecure tenancies.

Registered Social Landlords are building or developing properties in London which offer a more secure tenancy, but they are now allowed and indeed encouraged to charge 80 per cent of local market values.

This is called "affordable" housing.

Forty years ago hotel workers and hospital porters could and did work hard, save up and buy houses in inner London.

At last year’s Conservative Party Conference, the Prime Minister referred in his leader’s speech to a young couple who had been able to buy a house thanks to the government’s "Help to Buy" initiative; he noted that they both had jobs which paid a decent wage, but their parents were not wealthy.

In two generations we have come to accept that even a dual-income family with "decent-paying jobs" needs either rich parents or government assistance to buy a house.

How can we speak of the rewards of work and the virtue of self-reliance, when honest, useful work is not enough to put a roof over one’s head, much less offer hope of a better life for one’s children and grandchildren?

Many people confuse all Londoners with "the metropolitan elite".

In fact, London is full of people working hard for minimum wage or little more, who are active in their parish church or mosque or temple, help out with Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, hold jumble sales to raise money for the local community centre, and regularly visit their elderly housebound neighbours (whom often they have known since childhood).

We’re now meant to believe that a wealthy "investor" in Moscow or New York or Kuala Lumpur has more right to own a piece of London than these Londoners have to live in it, including many who have lived here for generations and whose roots in their neighbourhoods are part of a strong social fabric.

There is now a very troubling tendency to think that the rich are in no way indebted to those who repair and clean the streets, drive the buses and the trains, build and work in schools and hospitals and care homes, offices, shops, hotels and restaurants – and that they have no obligation to society.

To believe that those of modest means are not entitled to live in the cities, towns, villages, communities that they also serve, to assert that only wealth confers this "right" is indefensible; to believe that it is of no consequence to society when families are separated, communities and neighbourhoods uprooted and destroyed is frankly insane.

It is also a betrayal of genuine Conservative values.

It is not socialism to suggest that money is not the be-all and the end-all, and that the rich have some responsibility towards – and are always indebted to – society.

Throughout its long history, London has accommodated and derived its strength and vitality from people of all walks of life.

In contrast to many other world capitals, the well-off have not, on the whole, lived in isolation from ordinary working people.

Much of the Victorian terraced housing so characteristic of this world-renowned city was built specifically to accommodate labourers, artisans, clerks, small shopkeepers and the like.

Somewhat larger houses for those of higher status were built in the same neighbourhoods, often on the same roads.

The developers were not altruists, they built to make a profit. But it never occurred to them to build only for the rich, as they understood that the contribution of the rich to society does not suffice.

The same Victorians who built so much of London’s housing built the world’s first underground railway, a sewerage system, and the magnificent Crossness Pumping Station (among many, many other things) – these also were built with private funds and the investors firmly intended to realise a profit. But they understood that the public good served the good of the country.

A similar devastation to that being wrought on London has been visited upon many rural communities since the Eighties, with little fuss in the London-based media, since affluent city-dwellers, many of them Londoners, were largely to blame.

Local people have been priced out of places they’d called home for generations, schools and pubs and post offices obliged to close as houses acquired for the occasional weekend stand mostly empty.

As year-round population drops, bus and rail services are reduced and eventually scrapped, drawing other communities along the route into the downward spiral of social and economic deprivation.

In some parts of the North Cornwall and South Devon coasts, 40 per cent of homes are empty most of the year.

A 2012 report by the National Housing Federation showed a 26 per cent increase in social housing waiting lists across the South West in 2010-2011; in Devon, the numbers rose by 42.4 per cent.

One associates the Cotswolds with Rebekah Brooks and David Cameron, Jeremy Clarkson, Joanna Trollope and the like, but the average salary is £19k per annum.

Average house prices are 18 times that.

It is no coincidence that the number of second (third, fourth, fifth) homes is only slightly less than the number of households on the housing waiting list, but it is puzzling that new holiday homes are being built in lieu of housing for local people.

The sensible, sober Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors pointed out that the latest projected rise in house prices owes more to a shortage of housing than to an increase in "consumer confidence" essential to what we now think of as an economic recovery (people are willing to rack up more debt again! Hurrah!)

However an article in The Guardian adopts a congratulatory tone in reporting that house prices in the City of Manchester (as distinct from Greater Manchester) rose by 21 per cent, "outperforming" every other area in the country.

We are left in the dark as to the percentage by which wages rose.

In Leeds, the average house price is more than eight times the average salary, and private rents are expected to rise by 20 per cent over the next five years.

Manchester and Birmingham were the flagship projects of the Blair government in which between 1998 and 2007 vast amounts of public and private money were splashed out on a neoliberal interpretation of urban regeneration meant to help these cities compete with London and other world capitals in attracting rootless, footloose young professionals, "creatives", and entrepreneurs.

Art galleries, concert halls and the like appeared as landmarks of "iconic" architecture, acres of space were devoted to high-end retail, thousands of "desirable residential units" created in old warehouses and factories or built new above and around the luxury shopping malls which proved so attractive to the dispossessed of these cities in the riots of 2011.

People on low and modest incomes were pushed ever farther from the centre, compulsory purchase orders and demolitions helping to effect the kind of socio-economic cleansing now under way in London.

Ed Miliband did well to raise the "cost of living crisis" as an election issue, but he is largely ignoring the fact that the cost of housing is the biggest part of it.

Unless we address this, we cannot solve the escalating cost of living, nor the widening wealth gap, the stagnant or falling social mobility that deprives Britain of so much talent and ability from amongst its own people, and the destruction of communities within which people learn and practice civic virtue and responsibility.

Last month, nine London local authorities went to the High Court to challenge Boris Johnson’s proposal allowing "affordable homes" to charge up to 80 per cent of the local market rate.

They lost.

They had tactfully suggested that the Mayor was mistaken in thinking of London as a single market. He knows this full well: Londoners who can’t compete with the global elite are a vexing variation on "bed-blockers", and he wants them out.

The Deputy Mayor chided the local authorities for wasting public money at the High Court, although an independent planning inspector had recommended that local authorities should retain the right to define affordability in their own areas.

So much for localism. Buy water cannon instead.

The Deputy Mayor went on to claim that had the councils won, developers would turn away, depriving us of much-needed "investment".

We really must learn to distinguish between investment and pillage.

The complex and various roots of a national housing crisis require different battles in different parts of the country.

But throughout Britain, we need to think long and hard about what we value and why, what sort of society we want to be. We have to stand together on this.

Genuine Conservatives – as distinct from Americans and scions of New Labour – should be less relaxed about unbridled greed and significantly more concerned about the public good.

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