How to have a nice time at Ikea

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

"Hey, Mummy, look at meeee!” Larry spins around in a bright-orange, toddler-sized bubble chair. Larry, Moe and I are having a day out at Ikea. Admittedly, before having children, this would not have featured in my list of top-ten days out. I hate mass-produced furniture. I hate strip lighting. More than anything else in the world, I hate retail parks. They seem to me to represent the death of everything good about humanity.

“Now I’m going to jump off this one, look!” Larry flies off the top of a bunk bed and crash-lands on an immense beanbag. He loves Ikea. At home, there is no room to run around and I constantly have to prevent him from jumping off the sofa for fear of dislodging our downstairs neighbours’ light fittings. Here, there is almost limitless space, plenty of furniture to leap from and – joy of joys – a mini-workbench with dinky wooden hammers and screwdrivers to bang around.

And meatballs. We like the (horse?) meatballs sold in the Ikea restaurant for £1.99. As long as I manage not to buy anything (and I DO NOT need another Nyttja picture frame, even if it is only £2.50), we can happily spend a whole morning and lunchtime in Ikea for less than a fiver. There’s no need to cook, no mess to tidy up . . . It’s an unexpected kind of bliss.

I prise Larry away from the children’s section and we trundle with the buggy over to the cafeteria. Cling-film-covered plates of drab smoked salmon and browning salads glisten in refrigerated rows. I order the meatballs and then progress to the dessert counter. What shall our treat be this time – a cranberry cheesecake or a Chelsea bun?

Larry is jumping up and down excitedly. This is the high point of his day. “I want chocolate cake and I don’t want to share it. I want it all to myself.”

I hope my children will grow up with fond memories of eating chocolate cake in retail parks. At their age, former generations might have been running around in meadows or playing wholesome games of cricket in the street. There’s little point in harking back to all that.

For me, the biggest challenge of being a mother is coming to terms with the yawning gap between my fantasies about what might make a lovely childhood, which include meadows and street cricket, and the grubby, grasping, polluted, retail-park-strewn reality of my children’s lives. It is hard to accept that no matter how much I love them, I can’t conjure up meadows and cricket where there ain’t none.

In short, I have to make the best of our little lot, which has never been my strong suit. But I am determined to try.

I take one of the immense slabs of chocolate cake out of the refrigerator and put it on our tray for Larry and me to share. Then I add extra ice cream. And sprinkles. I banish thoughts of child obesity from my mind: today, I just want to have a nice time.

What the hell, I might even buy that picture frame.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.