Politicians should build on Labour's plans to help renters. Photo: Getty
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Why Labour's help for "generation rent" is not a radical enough offer

While Ed Miliband's plans this week are welcome, much more needs to be done to ease the increasingly hostile renting and housing conditions faced by a generation.

According to Labour, up to 9m renters would save more than £600 each in the next parliament under plans announced this week by Ed Milliband to ban letting agent fees and cap rent increases for longer-term tenants. While hardly earth-shattering, this is at least a start for those both renting and looking to save in order to get on the home ownership ladder in the future.

Indeed, if politicians are in any doubt as to the financial hardship and frustration the hostile housing market is causing "generation rent", then Saturday’s protest (with the corresponding hashtag #MarchForHomes) in London on the lack of affordable housing gives some indication of the difficulties faced by this group. For despite all the charms of the city and Home Counties, the fact is that if you find yourself single, in an average graduate position with a salary of around £25,000 - £30,000, you’re going to have to be saving for an awfully long time to afford even a modest property, let alone afford the exorbitant monthly rents that are set to continue to rise much faster than wages.

In London today, for example, you would be very lucky to get a two bedroom flat near Streatham station (Zone 3) for around £300,000. If you’re a 25-year-old single, don’t have the Bank of Mum and Dad to back you up, and are able to save £100 a month, you’ll have to wait (if you’re starting from scratch) until you’re 50 to put a 10 per cent deposit down on a property at this price. Even if you’re able to get a rare 95 per cent mortgage, chances are you’ll be 37 or 38 until you’re ready to take the plunge.

These figures also assume that house prices will stay static, which they almost certainly will not. In order to keep up with rising prices, savers will have to progressively increase the amount they put away  by no means easy given that wages for young workers have fallen more than any other group between 2008 and 2014, while house prices in the capital have rocketed by 25 per cent between the second quarter of 2013 and the same period in 2014. With such grim prospects on the horizon regarding "getting on" in life, as our politicians so often phrase it, it’s no wonder many workers feel the recovery hasn’t yet arrived for them.

Might shared ownership offer a way forward for locked-out young workers? For the unitiated, shared ownership offers a halfway house between renting and buying, with buyers able to buy a proportion of the property for a lower amount, paying the rest in rent. To many, this might seem a reasonable compromise, yet the handful that come on the market attract fierce competition and often go to families with children deemed (not unreasonably) to be in greater need than singles.

Put simply, not enough homes are being built.

In truth, the political powers that be have known this for years, yet under the current coalition fewer homes than ever have seen the light of day. Between 2012 and 2013 for instance just 109,370 homes were constructed. In accordance with such pitiful numbers, it’s no surprise that in places in high demand like London, prices skyrocket as more and more workers are pulled to the Big Smoke.

Furthermore, our housing crisis not only affects those who wish to buy, but also those renting. The logic here is similar: rents increase as tenants in a desirable area increase and the housing supply fails to meet the corresponding demand. This problem is arguably exacerbated by the lack of rental controls and legislation protecting tenants from steep increases. In other words, tenants are at the mercy of their landlords in relation to prices. Although at last it looks like Labour might be beginning to do something about this, its plans won't be enough.

It’s all good and easy to say "build more affordable houses" but how can this be done? The housing charity Shelter proposes a number of solutions. The first is an increase in direct government investment, which Shelter says has a track record of being effective and could be achieved while honouring national debt reduction commitments. A second possible solution would be to increase greenbelt flexibility, allowing developers of various sizes to build on land previously protected. This would be effective in cities too; 19 of the 32 London boroughs have greenbelt land. It’s also worth noting that in introducing this policy, Britain would not become an "urban jungle" as some suggest, and Britain’s countryside would still be maintained

While these and other solutions sound viable, is there the political will? Voters, while supporting increased housing, generally do not support expansion in their backyard. This risk of public anger perhaps helps explain the reluctance to date of elected representatives to really get behind housing projects beyond the occasional rhetorical noises of support. This presents something of a conundrum for our politicians: support housing expansion in their constituency and risk unpopularity with voters, or do nothing and increase pressure on hard-pressed workers.

Regardless of risk, politicians really must see the bigger picture here and build on the plans announced by Labour today. Our continued failure to build more affordable homes has wrought serious economic, social and cultural consequences, and will continue to do so unless something is done. By grasping the nettle on this issue and addressing a concern for millions in the UK, a post-2015 government could go some way to restoring confidence in a system many feel let down by, and reap the rewards at the 2020 election as a result.

But will any party be brave enough?

David Binder blogs at thoughtsofbinder.wordpress.com and can be found on twitter at @davidpaulbinder

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Despite his “strong female leads”, Joss Whedon's feminism was never about real women

Many men in TV and film praised for their powerful women are still writing with the male gaze.

Kai Cole, the ex-wife of Joss Whedon, has written an essay alleging that the director isn’t quite the feminist he appears to be. Colour me unsurprised. There’s only so much good-guy posturing a feminist can take before she starts to become a little suspicious.

It’s not that I’ve any particular beef with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor that I think men shouldn’t speak out against sexism wherever possible. But I’ve long harboured a mistrust of male directors – Whedon, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar – who gain a reputation of being “good at doing women”. Who are they, these magic woman-whisperers, who see through woman’s childlike, primitive exterior and coax out the inner complexity? How do they manage to present women, these blank, mysterious objects, as actual human beings?

True, these men are working against a backdrop of extreme sexism, in which film dialogue is dominated by males, while females become increasingly silent as they age. Perhaps one should be grateful to anyone who allows a female character to have some glimmer of an inner life, let alone exist beyond the age of 30.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this isn’t enough. We all know the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it’s set so low. It’s all too easy to be “good at doing women” when all it takes is granting female characters the same desires and contradictions we’d grant to any other human being.

Women are not a specific type of puzzle for mankind to solve. The idea that it should take some noble, generous leap of imagination to empathise with us is an excuse men have been using to mistreat us for millennia. When responding to us as though we’re actual human beings – or at least, as though an interesting Real Woman subset of us are – becomes a USP, we should all be worried.

Whedon did go a little way to addressing this in his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, in which he mocked the way in which he was constantly asked: “Why do you always write these strong women characters?”:

“Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honoured.”

If this sounds a little like a humblebrag, it can probably be excused. What’s harder to excuse is this idea that a man who boasts of surrounding himself with women like his mother – “an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman” – is doing womankind a favour.

I’m glad you appreciate your mum, Joss, and that you apparently don’t feel threatened by other women like her. There’s a fine line, though, between valuing women and presenting them with a whole new list of impossible standards to live up to. This is why I could never quite buy into the liberatory potential of Buffy. There’s nothing impressive about a man failing to be intimidated by his own strong girl fantasy.

In E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman, the hero Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, a doll whom he believes to be a real woman. Once the truth is exposed, the men around him become concerned that they, too, may have unwittingly fallen for automata:

“Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.”

There’s something about the director who’s “good at doing women” that reminds me of this. There’s a recipe for dropping in just the right number of quirks, inconsistencies and imperfections to create a Real Woman Character, without making her so unsexy as to be instantly distinguishable from your Hollywood doll. It’s not that her actual thoughts and feelings matter; it’s all about where she’s positioned in relation to you.

As Sophia McDougall noted in her excellent essay on Strong Female Characters, male characters have complex personalities as a matter of course; female characters, meanwhile, are occasionally permitted to be strong, hence anomalous. The more nuance we see, the better. Even so, I’m tired of the veneration of men who fetishise Real Womanhood just as much as others fetishise the plastic variety.

According to Whedon’s ex-wife, the director’s declared feminist ideals never filtered through into real life. Whether this is true or not, this would be understandable. Real Women are not the same as real women. Equality isn’t a matter of men feeling “engaged and even attracted” to a more diverse range of females. It isn’t about the male gaze at all.

Whedon’s final response to the “why do you always write these strong women characters?” question – “because you’re still asking me that question” – has been seen by many as an explicitly feminist statement. But perhaps all it really meant was “because there’s still a gap in the market”. Because men will always find ways to benefit from other men’s sexism. If Real Women didn’t exist, some man out there would have to invent them. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.