Fun, as per instructions

I enjoy being bossed about by Martha Stewart

Along the street where I live in London is a stall selling magazines that are marginally out of date. You can buy three for £2 and real bargains are to be had, especially if you choose international magazines that are usually about £5 a pop. It was here that I picked up my Martha Stewart Living magazine habit.

Within its pages I was gently bossed to do things such as "compile an inventory of all your dishes, you don't want to be caught out before the festive season" (this, just before Christmas) and to store these plates interleaved with felt squares to protect them, one from the other. Before Hallowe'en I was shown how to pierce tiny holes in a gourd, with a gourd punch tool - not even the tremor of a suggestion that any reader might not have such a thing - with the suggestion that I carve out the number or name of my house. It also shows you how to make candles and all manner of other things that most sane people have no time for. It's a magazine for people with possibly no lives, jobs or hope, just lots of money. And it's horribly addictive, because you know that, inside, these people must be screaming as they punch tiny holes in gourds and count out their soup tureens before, possibly, going out to shoot people in shopping malls.

Anyway, in a spring issue, it did show something that was lots of fun, even if you don't have an estate in Connecticut to do it on: tie-dyeing. Tie-dye clothes look hideous on anyone over eight, so it's only fair we let the under-eights indulge. What you need are any old bowls you can muster from the kitchen (MSL showed lovely vintage bowls), some fabric dyes, water, rubber bands and some marbles.

This is a great way to use up tatty, greying, stained white T-shirts. You scrunch up the T-shirt and secure with rubber bands (put marbles in the scrunched-up bits for circular patterns), or just knot the garment and chuck it in the dye for as long as you can stand it, then take out and rinse till it runs dry (you may need to set the colour according to your dye instructions). The point is to have fun, let your children experiment, and try not to be too prescriptive (but shhh, don't tell Martha). It's a really lovely thing to do in the garden on a sunny day and of course if you do it outside the threat of mess is less bothersome.

For slightly older children, there's the misleadingly named T-shirt stamping kit. The idea is that you can stamp out various words on to T-shirts, hats, canvas shoes, and so on. It's more of a considered, "head bent over the table" activity, although it's always very interesting to see quite what words children come up with when given free rein. In the world of Martha Stewart it would probably be "Help".

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel

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The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.