Tag Archives: Housing

An Englishman’s Home is his Castle – but Why?

The English are obsessed with housing. The newspapers are full of articles about it, politicians argue about it, and young people struggle and worry about ever being able to afford it. John Lanchester points out that while 70% of Brits live in their own homes, only 40% of Germans do.

Why is this? There are many reasons why buying is a terrible idea: expensive repairs, a fall in prices will leave you in negative equity, you are less flexible …

Going into the credit crunch, the typical household in the UK owed 160% of his or her average income. In France a bank will only lend you a third of what you’re owning, and if you get into trouble paying it back, the bank can be sued for reckless lending. One of the reasons we can’t join the Euro is because there’s so many property owners, interest rates are too politically important to hand over to Brussels.

So why the Anglo-Saxon obsession with housing?

John Lanchester has a theory:

“Our longing [for property] is connected to the sense of dislocation which spread throughout British society during the industrial revolution. …

Countries with the go-go attitude to the free market, countries which pride themselves on their openness to competition, willingness to take a chance, lack of feather-bedding and protection from the laws of the jungle, might be expected to have a property market in which people were easy-going about rening and reluctant to tie up all their money in a single illiquid asset. On the other hand countries with more traditional, less capitalistic attitudes, less open to the cold winds of the markets and more willing to protect their citizens from market realities, might well have a conservative appetite for bricks-and-mortar. Instead it’s the other way around. Why? Well perhaps that’s exactly why. It’s precisely the most free-market, go-go countries which show this overpowering appetite for people to own their own homes. The less security there is in the workplace, the more exposed the rest of life is to the pressures of competition and uncertainty, the more people want to feel secure within their own four walls, at the beginning and end of the harsh working day.

The huge expansion in British home-ownership began during the 1840s, when the effects of the industrial revolution had spread sufficiently to create a new middle class with the economic means to buy their own homes. Because we were alienated and insecure at work, we felt an increased need to own the walls we live in, to feel safe and in possession of our own property. It was the psychic trade-off for the other losses of industrialization.”

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Jilted Generation

Probably the book which has angered, inspired and politicised me most in the last six months is Jilted Generation by Ed Howker & Shiv Malik.

Howker and Malik argue that the baby-boomer generation – those born between 1945 and 1965 – have enjoyed an uniquely privileged set of circumstances growing up – a set of circumstances which contrasts with the shoddy inheritance left to the generation after.

  • Housing. As well as the sell off of council housing – a massive windfall for the baby-boomers – baby-boomers only had to borrow (on average) three times their salary to buy their two-up, two-down with a garden. Their debt was also diminished by high inflation rates. Since then the decline in house building, strict planning laws, and population growth have caused house prices to rocket – making baby-boomers rich, and pricing the young out of the market.
  • Higher education. Boomers not only got their higher education for free, but once  gained, their degrees were highly valued in the job market. Starting wages were comparably high. Today young people face £9000 a year tuition fees, a jobs regime that requires many young people to work for free on  ‘internships‘, a lack of apprenticeships, and an economy that leaves one in five young people unemployed.
  • Pensions. Boomers joined companies with final-salary schemes. Now most companies don’t have ANY pension provision. The ones left are risky ‘defined contribution’ schemes, paid later and requiring bigger contributions.
  • Dismal government finances. We have a national debt of £867 billion, and that’s not including the PFI schemes and public sector pension liabilities that sit off the balance sheet. All the fuss at the moment about reducing the deficit (basically the nation’s overdraft) doesn’t touch the underlying debt.
  • And there’s probably half a dozen other things I’ve forgotten

These arguments have been set out elsewhere. David Willetts (now the higher education minister) in Pinch, calculates that with baby-boomers entering the job market later than the generation before (after going to University), whilst retiring in their 60s (earlier than those who will follow), combined with their long life expectancy, means they will take out 118% of what they put in to the welfare state.

What Howker and Malik do which is different

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