Britain’s housing crisis is a peculiar sort of madness. Photo: Getty
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How I fell onto the property ladder: a journey from rent boy to a housing millionaire

Almost by accident I’ve become property rich, cash poor, and without producing anything of use to the economy.

I’ve moved from being a rent boy to a housing millionaire. Back in 2004 I published my book Rent Boy, subtitled How One Man Spent 20 Years Falling Off The Property Ladder. It detailed my rented housing struggles in London from 1980 (the year of the first right-to-buy) via 11 homes and included living in an asbestos-ridden council tower block in yet-to-be-gentrified Westbourne Park with a – possibly quite literal – short-life house association. We were told that as long as we didn’t knock nails into the walls then we’d be fine. Now I’m not so sure.

My other rental experiences included landlords changing my locks in Fulham, a neighbour with mental health issues throwing a vase through my window and then posting pink knickers through my letter box, cockroaches in the kitchen, rows over housing rotas, withheld deposits for “washing curtains” in West Kensington, overflowing loos in Hammersmith, dodgy electrics in Elephant and Castle, £70 bills from an estate agent for changing a light bulb after I left (the minimum call-out fee apparently), and many more tales of housing woe. 

It wasn’t all bad; there was even a nice place in a Georgian house in Camberwell which had a chandelier and spiral staircase and the tenancy lasted two years. I made some good friends (mainly the people who didn’t mark their shampoo), had some great parties and got to know a lot of new areas.

But there was always that gnawing sense of insecurity and the fear of the latest eviction notice. Had I, as David Cameron now advocates, been allowed to buy a housing association flat I’d have done so through desperation. House prices were rocketing and as a freelance journalist mortgages of the right size were nearly impossible to get.

Then in 2004, having met my future wife Nicola (who had her own flat) we finally moved into home ownership in London for the then colossal sum of £330,000, aided by an inheritance from selling my aunt’s house in Stoke and selling Nicola’s existing flat. It wasn’t always easy even though we put down a decent deposit. In the digital age my writing income tumbled with the decline of print and at times we were struggling to pay the mortgage.

My parents died in 2006 and 2007. One of the most dehumanising aspects of the current market is that the death of your parents becomes good news property-wise. We managed to pay off the mortgage on our house after selling my mum and dad’s place in Norfolk. And as my income has gone inexorably down, so the value of my home has gone up to around £1m.

Almost by accident I’ve become property rich, cash poor, and without producing anything of use to the economy (bar keeping a few window fitters busy). My wife and I have written some half-decent articles and done a bit of teaching, but really we haven’t done anything to earn £700,000 in 11 years bar sit on our posteriors in the same house. And if we want to stay in London it’s a useless gain as every other property has gone up too. I wouldn’t mind at all if my property had stayed the same price since 2004.

What’s striking is the volatility of my housing history. Oh for something a bit more Germanic, years of steady renting at fixed rates and then perhaps buying a house that retained the same value.

Yet Britain remains addicted to property inflation as books such as Danny Dorling’s All That Is Solid have emphasised, while home ownership has become virtually impossible for those not on the property ladder. The Conservatives are going to inflate the bubble even more through selling off housing association flats without replacing them and encouraging splurging of pensions on buy-to-lets.

Ed Miliband’s promise to have three-year tenancies for renters is something and it’s encouraging that the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett actually suggested that homes are for living in and not an investment. But it will surely need more and someone to say the unsayable, that property prices and rents both need to go down and more affordable houses need to be built.

What I haven’t forgotten is the hell of not knowing where I’ll be living next month and measuring out my life not in coffee spoons, but in endless boxes humped up endless stairs to endless top-floor flats. Now my children will in a few years be out there in the rental cardboard jungle, their only hope of buying being the Dickensian hope of an inheritance from the death of an aged parent... It all seems a peculiar sort of British madness where endless property inflation, not building social housing and no rent controls are seen as a great triumph.

Pete May is the author of Rent Boy: How One Man Spent 20 Years Falling Off the Property Ladder

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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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