Don't leave house building to the house-builders

Give people a driving seat in housing investment, writes VMC Rozario.

The reality is mortgage finance is never going to get back to the heady days of the early 2000s, nor should it. But with rents rising, saving for a deposit when a lack of supply keeps prices overinflated seems impossible.

I'm part of Generation Rent, a generation unable to access social housing or mortgage finance and left paying more per month for housing than any other group. But I'm also part of a growing generation of people that, unlike their parents, need to find our financial security in something other than the bricks and mortar of their own home.

Whatever the larger debate, we need more homes all sorts of homes, for rent, socially and privately, and to buy.

The question becomes where will this investment come from?

The London Mayor wants a £1.3bn rebate in stamp duty from the Treasury to build 1 million homes by 2050. Yet with the banks holding back on lending and the Government set against going back to a pre-2010 situation of more public subsidy for capital investment in social housing (despite the economic evidence that it could be the short-term kick the economy crucially needs).

Political parties are desperate for a quick fix to this investment problem. Institutional investors, like pension funds, have been incredibly slow to come to the table to kickstart building.

Perhaps we would be better off crowd sourcing investment from the public directly.

There are a growing number of success stories of start-ups who have gone directly to large groups of ordinary savers/investors through websites like Kickstarter. Although the model isn't directly transferable, the principle is. Get people to invest in housing other than their own. Around 1 million plus private landlords in the UK are doing and making a profit out of it, so why not make more of us landlord investors?

That doesn't mean becoming a country of buy-to-let investors, but if more people want to invest in housing other than their own why not tap into that?

Some might scoff at the idea given the economic climate but actually there are two things that mean we should look at it seriously. Firstly we already have a model of public savings that has grown in sufficient volumes to take seriously.

When Premium Bonds were created by Harold Macmillan government in 1956 the aim was to control inflation but also to encourage saving in post-war Britain. On their first day £5 million worth of bonds were sold and by 2006 improvements in accessibility and a desire for safer investments than the stock market saw 23 million people (then around 40 per cent of the British public) hold premium bonds.

The ability to bring together savings from such a broad section of society (1.6 million of those bond holders had saved only a reasonable £5,000) should be something to replicate in housing investment, especially as housing is relatively stable and long-term investment.

Now National Savings and Investments manage over £100 billion in ordinary people's savings. Imagine if a separate housing fund was launched. There is something powerful about the idea of a family growing into habit of saving, with the added bonus that their investment has helped a housing association deliver them a home and keep house prices and rents down is a bonus. Unlike dead rent, in time those savings could fund a deposit on their own home, university fees or even retirement costs.

The second indicator that this general idea, people investing in housing other than their own, needs closer inspection is that where housing associations have dipped their toes in retail bond issues they have generally had their feet bitten off. Steve Binks, Places for People's Finance Director told the Communities and Local Government Select Committee last year about their experience of reaching out to private investors:

We went out with a relatively small issue, or ambitions for a relatively small issue of £25 million to £50 million. That was our initial asking and we were surprised-almost overwhelmed-by the demand. We ended up raising £140 million in two weeks from people who would invest money with us for five and a half years, put it into an ISA at-I think the interest rate was 5 per cent.

Moreover there's enormous scope of innovation and creativity in this space to give ordinary people a stronger say in housing investment. More work should be done to think and test how this could help communities fund more housing locally, how housing associations could come together to utilising the wealth of savers in the south east (who unsurprisingly save the most) to fund affordable housing across the country and how investments could be made as easy to buy and manage as a premium bond.

A sign marks a plot for sale on a housing construction site on in Swindon, England. Photograph: Getty Images

V M C Rozario is a pseudonymous former housing professional and a member of Generation Rent.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era