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Squeezed middle: The housing bubble that hangs over our lives

Rising house prices are meant to pacify the UK, but they are not in the least bit comforting.

I take a detour down Frankie’s road on the way to Sainsbury’s and that’s when I see it: a clipped little tree in a slate-coloured pot. It is sitting innocently enough in the front garden of an ordinary house in an ordinary street. But immediately I get a sinking feeling in my stomach.

I’ve seen trees like this before. Years ago they spread through Islington, my childhood home, like a virulent rash. The moment they started appearing near my old flat in Stoke Newington, I knew it was all over. Shortly afterwards we moved out to the suburbs, where we live now.

Just when I thought I could relax ... now they’re here, like harbingers of doom. Because these trees – so tame, so tasteful, so not actually trees – mean property developers. They are what you do in a front garden when you don’t intend to stick around long enough to actually plant anything and watch it grow. A cursory glance at the rest of the house confirms my suspicions. The front door and the window frames are painted Farrow & Ball-esque grey. The brickwork has been cleaned up, the plantation shutters are closed. A “For Sale” sign is up outside.

“What’s going on over there?” I ask Frankie when she opens the door.

“Oh, yeah. Guess how much it’s on the market for?”

“No. I can’t bear it. Just tell me.”


“Piss off.” Only last year, houses on this road were selling for less than 500k. Frankie bought hers four years ago for 350. I heard a rumour that the average house price in our area has gone up by 40 per cent this year. As we own our slightly-too-small flat, I can’t deny that part of me feels greatly chuffed. It’s always nice when your net worth increases to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds without you having to lift a finger.

But during the epic journey home, as Larry stops to examine every leaf and hole in the road, I have plenty of time to mull it over. What good does this “money” actually do us? It’s not going to help us move; in fact, it will make it more difficult as the differential between flats and houses only grows as prices rise. The only way it would actually improve our quality of life would be if we moved out of the area to somewhere cheaper — north, for example. I know plenty of people who are considering it.

But I have already moved once and I am determined not to do it again. London is our home. My mum is here and so is my sister. We have friends, Larry has friends. Even baby Moe has friends, if you consider a shared love of hitting one another over the head as nascent friendship. I don’t want to start again in a new place, unless that place is a lovely terraced house on Highbury Fields.

I glance into the buggy and notice Moe has opened his eyes. I pop his dummy back in and he drifts peacefully off again. It is, I realise with grim satisfaction, the perfect analogy: house prices are nothing but a great big dummy, administered by our great leaders to keep us all quiet. And we are just sucking it up.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.