Where on earth are we all going to live?

Our national obsession with property has led us into dangerous waters. At every level of the market

The British have a special relationship with their homes. We lavish attention on them; we fantasise about an extension here, a conservatory there; we willingly pay over the odds for a place to live because, almost regardless of social class, home ownership has become the ultimate national objective.

Now, this live-in liaison is facing its sternest test. In the course of the past decade, house prices have risen inexorably. First-time buyers are unable to get on to the housing ladder until well into their thirties, and there is a worrying lack of available housing - both for key workers and well-off families. Interest rates have risen four times in the past year. No wonder some commentators are predicting a house-price crash. The government is facing a desperate need for more new homes; the issue of extra taxes for buy-to-let landlords; proposals to overhaul Britain's archaic planning system and build over the green belt; and the looming question of how to mop up the mess left after the housing bubble pops. Housing is shaping up to be one of Gordon Brown's biggest headaches.

Britain's property obsession is a relatively new trend. Until the First World War, only a tenth of UK homes were owned by their occupier, compared with almost half in the US. This was partly because much of the property was owned by the richest members of the population, but it was also partly a social phenomenon. Even the wealthiest young men would prefer to take rooms - lodgings - rather than buying or renting their own properties when coming to London. In most circles it was perfectly normal never to own your own house.

Things changed after the world wars, as successive governments embarked on policies to find "homes for heroes". Controls were imposed on landlords and millions of pounds were poured into homebuilding projects. Meanwhile, inequality was falling, meaning many more middle-class families were suddenly able to afford to buy a home.

Amid the postwar optimism of 1950s Britain, home ownership slowly but surely became enshrined as a talismanic social objective, along with free health care, free education and low unemployment. The apogee was Margaret Thatcher's right-to-buy scheme, which saw thousands of council tenants buying their homes. All of this contributed to a sharp rise in home ownership. One government after another introduced lucrative tax breaks on mortgages, with the result that owner occupancy soared, recently reaching an all-time peak of 70 per cent. It was one of the biggest social and economic transformations in British history.

Britain's relationship with housing is not unique. In terms of home ownership, France is fast catching up and we remain far behind Spain. It is true that elsewhere in Europe, such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, more people tend to rent than buy. But this is due less to an ingrained cultural reticence about home-buying than to laws that make it more financially attractive to rent. Few realise just how much Britain's property-owning fixation was engineered by successive government's policies.

As prices have shot up it has slowly dawned on us that, as well as being nice places to live, homes can also make excellent investments, an idea which has only intensified our love affair with property. In the past few years, though, something has changed. After decades in decline, the proportion of people renting rather than buying a house stopped shrinking and is now rising faster and faster.

One reason is that those not yet on the property ladder are finding it all but impossible to afford to buy. But another more intriguing explanation lies in the fact that both Conservative and Labour governments have scaled back and abolished most of the tax breaks that pushed up home ownership in recent decades. Swiftly and silently, they have shifted the economics of property in favour of landlords rather than tenants for the first time since early last century. As a result, the shape of the market is slowly changing. More and more relatively well-off families are investing in property, often because they have seen the value of their pension fall and are looking for an extra source of income when they retire.

Landlords are already provoking resentment and, as their share of the market grows in the coming years, they are likely to become even more unpopular. A buy-to-let backlash seems highly likely in the future - Whitehall, sensitive to this, has already mooted a clampdown on landlords' unpaid tax. The influx of new landlords is not only crowding many potential buyers out of the market, it is also distorting the kind of homes available. Most of the new flats being built these days are targeted directly at buy-to-let investors - utilitarian blocks that are easy to let and cheap to maintain. For a number of years now, too few homes are being built with families in mind. This is intensifying the housing shortage on an island that is rapidly becoming one of the most overpopulated in the world. At the top end of the market, there are not enough homes with more than two bedrooms and even too few palatial properties for the financiers and jet-setters moving to London. Meanwhile, the flats that would only a few years ago have been affordable for the less well-off have shot up in value.

According to the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit, unless more houses are built, prices could be ten times the average buyer's salary within 20 years, compared with around seven at the moment. The average age of a first-time buyer has risen from 26 to 31 in the past decade alone, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders - a sure sign that millions of young people are being priced out of the market. The Bank of England has reported that the number of new mortgages issued has dropped suddenly, indicating that prices are also simply beyond the reach of many families.

The two key measures that most economists regard as the best gauges of affordability are both flashing red. Mortgage payments are now taking the biggest chunk of salaries since the tail-end of the last crash. Meanwhile, the fact that house prices have dramatically outpaced the growth in rents means anyone thinking of leaping into the buy-to-let sector is likely to have to turn in a loss for at least a couple of years before they start seeing returns. In other words, the financial rationale for homebuying is the weakest it has been in a generation. But, of course, this being a cocktail of love and money, people are still buying - thinking with their hearts rather than their heads.

Many parts of the country are already experiencing a slump. The Yorkshire and Humberside region, for instance, is witnessing the biggest drop in prices for at least seven years. Four interest rate increases by the Bank of England in the past year have simply made many peoples' mortgage payments unaffordable. The fact that taxes and the cost of living have risen sharply has only made things worse. So the demand for housing has dropped suddenly, causing prices to stall. Whether there is a slowdown or a more dramatic crash, it is clear that the decade-long boom is almost over.

As the end of the era approaches, a few conclusions are emerging. If the government wants to arrest the decline in home ownership and cool the market, it must follow the example of its post-war predecessors: build new homes and introduce tax breaks for homebuyers. Waiving stamp duty for first-time buyers would be a simple and relatively cheap initial step. But a more radical option would be to allow home-ownership levels to decline naturally to those found on the Continent.

There are, after all, plenty of reasons to believe our obsession with homeowning is pretty unhealthy. Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University, argues that too many of us own our homes. This causes serious damage to the economy, he claims, since it loads us all up with debt and prevents us from moving from city to city when different jobs beckon.

Abandoning the goal of widespread home ownership could be politically dangerous for any government. It would certainly be a bitter pill for the public to swallow. But given how torrid and irrational our relationship with property has become, it looks an increasingly attractive option.

Either way, if house prices do crash, it will be an important reminder for the British public that this love affair will never run smoothly.

Edmund Conway is economics editor of the Daily Telegraph

Case studies

  • Advertising planner Beth, 25 and her boyfriend found the pace of the market forced them to rush buying their first home. “Getting together the money, not only for the deposit but for all the extras, like solicitors and surveys, was difficult. Ideally we would rather have carried on saving in order to accumulate a larger deposit, but seeing house prices rise daily, made us decide to get on the market as quickly as we could. In the end we were very lucky to find a two bedroom maisonette that we could afford, but only because it needed a lot of work doing!”
  • New mother Kate, 32 and her husband may move to Oxford because of the lack of affordable family housing in London. They had hoped to move to a bigger property from their two bedroom house near to where they currently live to make room for their new family “We had a problem with every single house we looked. They had gone within hours. We only managed to get viewings at three houses because they were going so quickly. There's definitely a shortage of good houses, there are houses that need work but to get one in a good state there seems to be nothing below £700,000.”

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.