Through the keyhole: introducing the New Statesman's housing week

Over the next week, we're going to be examining the state of housing in Britain today.

Britain's housing situation is shambolic.

Since 1988, house prices have increased by 55 per cent in real terms according to the Halifax house price index — and almost all of that rise happened in just two years. Between 2002 and 2004 the average price of a house in the UK shot from £101,113 to £148,399. Since the market's peak, in 2007, the price of the average UK house has actually declined in real terms, but the price-to-earnings ratio of a house still stands at 4.5:1.

The bad situation nationwide is worse in our cities. As our economy steadily moves away from agriculture and manufacturing towards services, there is an ever-greater incentive to centralise our working lives in these hubs of activity. But expansive green belts stop us building our cities out, and the difficulty of getting planning permissionnot to mention the continued unpopularity of high-rise living — stop us building up.

As house prices have risen, we've also radically changed the way we provide accommodation for the poorest in society. In the post-war era, house-building was done by a mixture of local authorities and private enterprise. By the end of Thatcher's premiership, local authorities had largely stopped building homes altogether; and as a result of the recession, the number of new units built per year by private enterprise has also halved.

Gone is the idea of a council home for life, ideally ensuring stability, community and safety. Those ideals were rarely met, and it's undeniable that council estates had their flaws, but the alternative is worse. The private rental sector is expected to pick up the slack, with rents subsidised by the government's housing benefit. Landlords can, and do, raise rents at any time, forcing families from substandard house to substandard house — and occasionally to hostels, B&Bs and even the streets.

Even while the bottom end of the market is being forced to turn to the private rental sector, the top end is as well. The 0 per cent deposits of the pre-crisis world are gone, apparently forever. But while mortgages have reverted to the nineties, house prices haven't, and so, according to Halifax, the average age of a first-time buyer is now 30 years old (rising to 32 in London). If you want to live in a city, and don't have a nest-egg from your parents, your only option is to rent, usually indefinitely.

An increasing proportion of people renting at both ends of the housing market, matched with the precipitous drop in housebuilding since 2007, obviously means a squeeze on rents. But the government responded, not by tackling the cause, but by capping the amount of housing benefit people could receive, locking a whole social class out of large swathes of London.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the implicit promise that a house purchase is something that you can only ever make money on. If house prices were to fall, that would be disastrous for most people who own property, and that disaster would be passed on to the general economy. But if housing costs are not to fall, then Britain's young people and renters will have to carry on living through the disaster we are already experiencing. "The whole of British housing policy can be seen as an effort to reduce the cost of housing without affecting house prices", says Dan Davies, and that's a doomed attempt from the start.

Over the next week, we're going to be examining these concerns in greater detail. We'll look at the private rental sector, at the criminalisation of squatting and at the virtues of high-rises; we'll also be investigating the cost of the bedroom tax, and the implications of the housing benefit cap. If you think you have something to add to the discussion, you can tweet me or email me, and all the pieces will be collected here (and here) as the week goes on.

Monday: George Eaton on how the bedroom tax will hit disabled people, and Alex Hern on the death of Daniel Gauntlett due to the new anti-squatting laws.

Tuesday: Preston Byrne on why the Eastleigh by-election set back reform of planning laws, and Labour MP Helen Goodman on how trying to live on £18 a week showed the unfairness of the bedroom tax. 

Wednesday: Social researcher Declan Gaffney demonstrates how housing benefit has risen through need alone, and Simon Parkin on the dilemma faced by his grandparents as one of them has to go into care.

Thursday: Jeremy Messenger paints a picture of the omnipresent lack of stability, the invasion of privacy and the constant threat of being moved on tenants in the private rental sector experience, and VMC Rozario gives an innovative idea for how to build more houses.

Friday: Rebecca Tunstall on how housing traps people in unemployment.

A housing estate in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
Show Hide image

I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war