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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.