Why we need to build homes again – and give them away

Posted: November 23, 2011 in Uncategorized
by David Boyle nef fellow
Families should be freed from the relentless working hours needed to pay off massively inflated mortgages.

Unborn babies get a lot of attention from the government. Their mothers get free prescriptions. There are ante-natal classes and special hand-outs.

Quite right too. The more we can nurture unborn babies and their mothers, the healthier they will be in later life. That’s good economics, quiet apart from anything else. It’s an example of the elusive new economics principle of prevention.

But once the baby is actually born, things change pretty quickly. There are the NHS checks and jabs, of course. There is the rather nervous moments as the health visitors, the NHS’s own thought police, ring the doorbell to check you against national standards.

After that, you’re on your own.

I thought of this as the evenings drew in, walking home from the station in the drizzle and dark. I don’t remember before encountering quite so many buggies out at that time.

There they are, babies and toddlers, pushed wearily home in the dark suburbs by exhausted mothers back from full-time work at 7pm. The sleepy toddlers have spent since dawn with groups of similar children, in the our own very British, very expensive, kibbutz.

They will see their tired and indebted parents at the weekends, of course.

In their own way, all these scenes are little tragedies, played out day by day by couples who – like most of us in southern England – can’t afford to buy a house unless both partners are in full time employment.

This is not the way extreme house prices are seen by the popular press. The financial industries are also striving to create yet another house price boom would mean some kind of ‘recovery’. As much as 70 per cent of loans to small and medium sized businesses are now for property deals, so they are trying hard.

But it would be a fake recovery of course. It always is. It benefits nobody except the bankers and estate agents, and those who are cashing in the value of their house.

It leaves the rest of us deeper in indentured servitude to our mortgage lenders.

This semi-slavery is one of the biggest curses the financial sector has visited upon us. It massively narrows our choices in life, forcing us to work harder at jobs we often despise, driving our dreams away in a flurry of expensive practicalities. Trapping us in homes that are too small for our families.

Is there a link between high house prices and hyper-activity in children, cooped up in inappropriate flats, as decreed by John Prescott? I’ve no idea, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

But then debt is a great control mechanism. The Romans kept their slave nations firmly in debt. The British in India, the former slave owners in the deep south of the USA, both manipulated debt to keep control of sections of society under firm restraint.

When Nigel Lawson persuaded Margaret Thatcher that we should be encouraged to go into debt to own property, there may have been an element of the same thought. An indebted society is an obedient one that works harder than it wants to.

We accept these extraordinary house prices because they provide us with an alternative to our dysfunctional pensions, creamed off by financial intermediaries, decimated by the collapse in stock prices, manipulated by rises and falls of the stock market.

Less well known is the fact that most of the money in circulation comes from mortgages, around 60 per cent. We rely on this just to produce the means of exchange. It is hardly surprising the economy is creaking now that mortgages have dried up.

But it is really not a fair swap. We narrow our lives to buy homes, just to pay for a slightly better retirement – where we can look back on our wasted lives in a little more comfort.

What can we do about it? The left has traditionally been suspicious of the idea of owning property, but one of the side effects of this suspicion is that the poorest have even less independence than they ought to.

I believe we can learn from the old Distributists of the 1920s. Break the system apart by making sure that the new building programme for social housing, when it comes, does not perpetuate this slavery – trapping families in cramped grey flats, at rents they can’t control, or plunging them into debt for a generation.

What we need to do is to build again, but this time to give these homes away at pre-Big Bang prices (I bought my flat in Crystal Palace a few months later for £45,000. Now it would just cover the price of the land).

That would mean a new kind of independence for the poor, but it would also begin slowly to ratchet down the scandalously high house prices that currently exist – because they could not survive if a cheaper alternative was available.

That is a humane solution that can give people back their lives. Give them places to live – preferably with enough space to grow their own food.


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