Nun too wise: Tristram missed a chance. Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
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Colour-blind abuse, how to teach children about snow and what Tristram Hunt should have said

Snow blindness, the Guardian hustings - plus left- and back-footedness on Question Time.

Nearly two years ago, I received a curious letter from a senior newspaper executive. (As it was “strictly private and confidential”, I shall not identify him or his paper.) He recalled that in 2010 I had criticised the Daily Mail for a double-page spread about what it called “a sinister taboo”. Nine men in Derby, eight of Asian background, had been jailed for “grooming” schoolgirls for sex. BBC Radio Derby, the Mail lamented, “barely” mentioned their ethnic origins, while the local paper’s reports “failed to use the word Asian once”. Why, I asked, did the Mail think it so important “that we should have it lodged firmly in our minds that these criminals were (mostly) Asian and their victims (mostly) white”?

My correspondent pointed out that the Times’s Andrew Norfolk had just won the Orwell Prize for “highlighting the ethnic and cultural components” of sex-abuse cases in northern towns. Would I now accept that my comments were “misguided”? I would not.

Has the report on Rotherham council from Louise Casey, the government’s troubled families tsar, changed my mind? In only one respect: I accept that some councillors, officers and social workers ignored evidence of horrific sexual abuse partly because, as Casey reports, they feared creating racial tension. Their behaviour deserves to be publicised and denounced.

But I still do not see why the media should highlight ethnic origins of child abusers, particularly when the names of convicted men provide sufficient clues, as they did in Derby. The story in Rotherham and elsewhere is that organised street networks – based on the night-time economy of taxis and fast-food outlets, disproportionately staffed by young Asian men – preyed on vulnerable girls. The girls were stereotyped as worthless slags by those who should have protected them. That is the scandal.

Children were also abused in large numbers by boarding-school teachers, Roman Catholic priests, care workers in children’s homes and celebrities in the entertainment industry. Nearly all the abusers were white but the reporting defined them by occupation – which gave them opportunity and a sometimes justified belief that they were beyond the reach of the law – not by ethnicity. For similar reasons, the abusers in northern towns could be defined by their work as taxi drivers and burger fryers. The only reason for making their ethnicity a central issue is that it plays to white stereotypes about the uncontrollable sexual appetites of dark-skinned folk and therefore, no doubt, sells a few extra papers.


Bribe the aged

I wouldn’t normally find myself on the same side as a free-market think tank. But the Institute of Economic Affairs is right to criticise George Osborne for giving the more affluent over-65s a windfall in the form of pensioner bonds. These pay 4 per cent interest if held for five years or 2.8 per cent if held for two – a rate of return far beyond any offered by banks.

The Chancellor tells us the country must reduce the cost of borrowing. That is why the deficit must fall and why families with young children lose benefits and tax credits, and the NHS struggles. Yet here is Osborne borrowing an estimated £15bn from Britain’s pensioners at (once he’s taken back tax) 3.2 and 2.2 per cent, when he could
borrow on the gilt markets at 0.3 per cent. Even the Spanish, Portuguese and Italian governments aren’t paying as much as he is. It is just a bribe to persuade pensioners to vote Tory in May.


Snow blindness

Here is a Daily Mail story that sums up English education as remoulded by Michael Gove. When snow began to fall in the playground of a Norfolk primary school, a teacher of eight- and nine-year-olds lowered the classroom blinds so they couldn’t see it. The teacher acted to ensure “children focused on the tasks in hand”, the school explained.

In 1967, the Plowden report on primary education in England, regarded as the bible of progressives and trendies, considered the merits of “flexibility in the curriculum”: “When a class of seven-year-olds notice the birds that come to the bird table outside the classroom window, they may decide, after discussion with their teacher, to make their own aviary . . . paint the birds in flight, make models of them . . . write stories and poems about them.” Now, it is left to a Norfolk parent, “mother-of-six Shelly Betts, 43” (as the Mail calls her), to suggest that “they could have turned the snow into a science lesson”. Make that woman education secretary, I say.


Hacks’ hustings

Though the final decision will not be made by them, Guardian journalists ballot later this month on who should be their next editor. The candidates have not been named but are said to include one external applicant, probably Ian Katz, a former deputy editor who is now editing BBC2’s Newsnight without (if we believe the ratings) conspicuous success. The world, the hacks clearly believe, waits with bated breath: they spent much of their last meeting discussing whether the hustings should be streamed live over the internet.


Where do left-footers stand?

British Roman Catholics often seem reluc­tant to relinquish the victim status they held for several hundred years. During a debate about unqualified teachers on BBC1’s Question Time, Cristina Odone, the former NS deputy editor and professional left-footer, protested when Labour’s education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, mentioned nuns. Poor Hunt, accused of denigrating Catholics, was caught in a mini Twitter storm. But what Odone had just said was that unqualified teachers at Catholic schools she attended “taught values, not British values . . . real values”. Hunt, I think, was trying to say that these teachers were nuns who taught Catholic doctrine. A good point, but he would have done better to ask why Odone was denigrating British values. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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Has Brexit burst the British housing bubble?

The fall in value of the pound is having a negative impact on property prices.

The high cost of housing in the UK has almost nothing to do with supply and demand. What matters is political control. Rents are high because landlords have gained the upper hand politically. The consequences are vividly illustrated in Ken Loach’s new film focusing on inequality in Britain, I’ Daniel Blake.  As a student in the 1980s I paid £9 a week to rent a room in a shared house in Newcastle upon Tyne. Private rent was low because for decades before then rents had been regulated. It was the lifting of that regulation that meant rents could rise so that now students have to borrow vast sums of money just to have a place to live. Today’s students pay many multiples more in rent than I ever did, and millions of families with children are also struggling because they have to rent privately.

Because rents have been allowed to rise as high as landlords can get away with, the landlords have been encouraged to buy up more and more properties that were once social housing or lived in by a family, who had bought the property with a mortgage. The number of people renting privately doubled between the last two censuses of 2001 and 2011. That has never happened before. It was the end result of years of deregulation and the withdrawal of our government from representing our interests in housing. Well-regulated private renting is a benefit, but without rent regulation it becomes a social evil.

Housing prices are not determined by supply and demand because you do not have a choice about needing to be housed. Allow an unregulated market to develop when social housing is also being cut and there is no choice not to buy what is on offer, other than sleeping on the streets. Prices will go sky-high. The purchase prices for mortgage borrowers also rise to astronomical levels as first-time buyers are competing with landlords to buy properties, and so have to be able to secure a mortgage equal to the amount a landlords can wring out of people desperate for a home.

In the first blog in this series on affordable housing published by Taxpayers Against Poverty, Stephen Hill, director of C2O Futureplanners, explained: “There are over one million less affordable homes than there were in 1980. The population has grown by nearly nine million people. Incomes at the median level are flat, and secure employment is increasingly scarce.” He is correct, but the situation is even worse than that — it is not lack of housing that is the problem. Each annual census in the UK records the amount of housing that exists at each point in time. It does this by recording the number of rooms in homes over a certain size. The number of rooms per person has risen at every census since 1981.

The 2011 census was the first to count bedrooms and found that in England and Wales there were 66 million for a population of 55 million (21 million of whom were married or in a civil partnership). So even if we make the ludicrous assumption that only married people share a bed and no children use bunk-beds, there were at least 22 million bedrooms empty on census night 2011. We have not been building a huge number of new houses or flats in recent years, but we have been adding extensions on to our existing homes and so we now have more housing than we have ever had before, per person and per family. We just share it out more unfairly than we have ever done before.

If housing prices were about supply and demand then our surplus of bedrooms would result in falling prices, but this is not a free market. You are not free to buy a flat that has been left empty in London to appreciate in value by its owner. They do not want to sell, or sometimes even rent it out, and you almost certainly would not have the money even if they did.

It is in the housing market that the majority of investments are made in the UK, housing is where most wealth is held. As we become more and more economically unequal it is through housing that we most clearly see that most of us are losers while just a few (who own multiple properties) are winners. Recent UK governments have been allowing wealth and income inequalities to rise and rise.

As Fred Harrison explained in the second blog in this series, government has not only withdrawn from regulating housing rents and profits to avoid this winner-takes-all-economics — it is now even prepared to provide £2bn to buy properties that home builders can’t sell so that they don’t need to lower prices even if landlords and first-time buyers will not buy their properties. The government sees renting-seeking as a social good, and believes that the market in housing should be regulated less and less with each year that passes, other than intervening to keep prices high and rising. Meanwhile, street homelessness rises, evictions rise, the debt of mortgage holders rises, housing prices rise and a small minority of the population become richer. So how will it end?

You might have thought that prices would stop rising when landlords stopped buying properties because the return on their investments in terms of rent would not making it worth their while paying, say, one million pounds for a three-bed house in a part of London near a tube station. Suppose that the most a family could pay was £20,000 a year in rent. The landlord’s “return” on their investment would only be two per cent a year, ignoring wear-and tear and anything else that they might be able to off-set against paying tax. If the forces that were actually at play were “supply and demand” then surely prices have to stop rising when people can no longer afford the rents?

However, landlords have another return: the escalating value of the property itself. If the property is rising by five per cent a year in value then they are making a seven per cent return when they rent it out, even if annual rents are just two per cent of its value. The rise of five per cent a year is due to speculation which is itself partly fed by a belief that the government of the day will do all it can to protect their investments, but it will only do that up to a certain point.

Because it needs to raise taxes a little given the state of the national finances, the UK government is now withdrawing its support of reckless profit taking by smaller landlords. In October 2016 a group of buy-to-let landlords lost their appeal in the courts to try to continue to be able to claim their mortgage interest payments as a business expense. From 2017 only the largest of landlords who set up companies to rent out their properties will be able to continue to do that.

The government knows that the housing market is in trouble. That is why Philip Hammond, the current Chancellor, announced that their “Help to Buy” scheme (which was aimed at the very best-off of potential first time buyers) will end in December 2016. The government knows that with the risk of falling house prices in future it cannot afford the guarantees that “Help to Buy” created. “Help to Buy” schemes were the previous Chancellor, George Osborne’s biggest spending commitment. They were designed to help inflate the housing market and keep prices rising, but eventually every speculative bubble has to burst.

On 21 September the first reports of a stalling market were released under headlines that included: “Q2 UK house sales at an all-time quarterly low says Land Registry”. UK Land Registry figures now show housing prices to have fallen in London by 7% so far in 2016, with the number of sales roughly halving. Investors have stopped buying; if a recent investor wants to sell they have to do so at a loss. Nationally prices fell by 4.5%.

So what happened to the magic-money-tree? In short the pound fell in value and it has been continuing to fall ever since the UK voted to leave the EU. There was always going to be “the event” that triggered the end of speculation and it is looking more and more likely as if Brexit was that event. Once the pound begins to fall in value then any overseas investor knows that if they buy property in the UK, even if its value in pounds does not fall, it will be worth less to them in future.

Suddenly UK housing is not a safe asset. Suddenly prospective landlords actually have to try to rely on their tenants’ rent to pay back their borrowings. Suddenly housing prices change despite no great alteration in supply or demand. Suddenly the whole edifice looks unsafe, not just for the majority of young and almost all poor people in Britain, but for the large majority of the population.

It was never “supply and demand” that determined our housing costs and profits. Relying on that belief did not result in greatly improved cheaper housing for most people, but it was easy to claim that somehow tomorrow would be better if we just left it to the market — until we left it to the ever more unregulated market for too long. Housing costs, prices and supply are determined by governments, including those that shirk their responsibilities and have too much concern for the economic fortunes of the affluent few.


This is part of a series of blogs on affordable housing published by Taxpayers Against Poverty. You can read others in the series on their website or sign up to attend their seminar in Parliament on the 16th November here: