Why the left should aspire to a "property owning democracy"

There is a social argument for ownership as well as a conservative one.

The aspiration to home ownership, once seen as part of British national identity itself, is in trouble.  Recent research by Cambridge University suggests that a marked drop in mortgaged home ownership both pre-dates the financial crash and is likely to continue long into the future. That won’t come as news to those trying to become first-time buyers, struggling in a mortgage market where the size of required deposits rises sharply, even as house prices themselves stay largely the same. It also won’t come as news to those families who have contributed to the rapid growth in the private rented sector, often struggling in a market which has seen neither consistent improvements in protections for tenants or in the quality of available homes. 

Some on the left of British politics probably welcome this potential long-term shift in Britain’s housing market. Many left-leaning commentators have long argued that the British have been overly committed to ownership, neglecting the possibilities of long-term renting associated with many European city environments. They also remember the battles against Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to create a “property-owning democracy” in the 1980s, where the belief that home ownership helped to shape a more conservative political orientation was shared by both critics and admirers alike

This would be a mistake, however. As an IPPR report that will be published later this week argues, home ownership should remain a primary commitment for British housing policy. We should dedicate ourselves to identifying new policy solutions to make it easier, not harder, for the people of this country to own a home.

There are two primary reasons why it is important to restore the possibilities of home ownership to as broad a section of the population as is compatible with economic stability.

 First, home ownership has always been the way in which most British families put down roots in their communities. Ownership enables people to feel a commitment to the place where they live. It provides a sense of belonging that is not generative only of a conservative political mentality but one which allows the development of a palpable sense of agency, with individuals and their families becoming able to commit to the good of their neighbours as well as to improve the quality of their own lives. The stable patterns of social interaction that are associated with communities of ownership are preconditions for the kind of social reciprocity that the left champions, as well as the more conservative disposition that is more usually commented upon. There is, in other words, a social argument for ownership as well as a conservative one and we would be foolish to overlook it.

Second, home ownership remains a widely shared aspiration of the people of Britain. Despite all of the difficulties with mortgages and affordability, most people in Britain long to be able to shape their own domestic environments, to choose their own wallpaper, to paint their own front doors. Narrowing the availability of this option only to the well-off - essentially to those with large enough deposits or with parents willing to pay the costs themselves -   would be to further segregate an already excessively segregated society. If home ownership was to become the housing equivalent of those “Olympic car lanes” that now blight London - available only to a very select few - then we would live in a less, not more, desirable society. The left should never welcome a development that enables the rich to continue to access a good to which most people aspire and to deny that right to others.

The decline in home ownership might not be easily reversible in the short-term. It would need significant reform of our mortgage market and, even more importantly, a substantial increase in the construction of new houses. Nonetheless, if we care about living in an integrated society, where people feel in control of their own lives and connected to their neighbourhoods, it is a good to which we should remain committed.

"Ownership enables people to feel a commitment to the place where they live." Photograph: Getty Images.

Marc Stears is the chief executive of the New Economics Foundation

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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