We need to talk about the British property cult

Something should be done about the housing crisis before it's too late.

I was discussing the implications of the British Government’s recent spending review for housing associations when news of the civil unrest in Egypt started to come through. The housing crisis is much debated and its scale and significance are well recognised.We wondered whether the issue would ever lead to widespread protests. We started thinking about the poll tax riots of the 1990s which effectively put paid to Prime Minister Thatcher. Would the bedroom tax lead to similar unrest?

No: on the whole the people affected are either too old or too poor to protest with any force. More importantly the sentiment of the vocal masses is consumed by the UK’s one permitted greed: ownership.

But what will happen when a majority of people expecting to own a house find themselves not just priced out but physically excluded by a lack of available housing? These will be the children of the people with most influence over policy and public order and not just the weak, the poor and the vulnerable. This may offer a glimmer of hope to the CEOs of those housing associations that are neither too big to fail nor niche enough to be essential.

There are already indications some policy makers have seen that the demographics are shifting. As Janan Ganesh wrote in the Financial Times last week, it is inevitable that taxation’s focus will shift from income to assets. This has already started with increases to stamp duty on luxury houses and an end to the Council Tax discount on second homes. Income taxes are being reduced at both ends of the income scale.

Home ownership cuts to the heart of the conundrum facing the housing associations that provide the bulk of the UK’s social housing. Investors much prefer the yields achieved with privately owned housing to the lower, albeit steadier, returns offered by housing associations. Yes, this is changing but not quickly and not for all. The result is that few of the existing housing associations will be able to fund expansion and therefore few will survive the coming rigours of a mixed-economy market.

The obstacle is obvious. If the UK’s housing stock were to increase to meet demand then house prices would stop rising and the "investment" potential that drives almost every purchase and every single mortgage decision would be diminished. And no-one with a current investment, whether as a lender or an owner, will tolerate this. The success of the UK’s housing ladder is dependent on it being pulled up higher and higher with each generation. Like main-frame computers in the 1980s, residual values are always predicted to be far greater than the purchase price. This is a problem that has been known for decades, as David Miles points out in his Bank of England Report. The report also highlights that the problem gets worse as population density increases. Not only will house-price rises greatly outpace wage inflation, land availability will become even scarcer. Housing associations will have to fight for land, for financing and for affluent tenants able to afford the ever rising rents. Something has to give.

Will this really pave the way for a new levy on housing and an assault on the British property cult? If so perhaps the usual restraint will crumble and we will see waves of street protests, albeit more Glastonbury meets Glyndebourne rather than Tahrir Square meets Jarrow March.

Housing associations will have to fight for land, for financing and for affluent tenants able to afford the ever rising rents. Photograph: Getty Images

Spencer Neal is a reformed publisher who now advises on media and stakeholder relations at Keeble Brown. He writes about the ironies and hypocrisies that crop up in other peoples' businesses. He is also an optimist.

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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