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Highgate Cemetery is like a radical fantasy cocktail party

Sally Gimson’s diary on life as wife to a Tory, the joys of Travelodge and turf wars in her ward.

Spending a prolonged time with my right-wing husband over the summer holidays is proving a trial. Even an innocent cycling trip with the children from London to Eastbourne ended up as a Tory tour. When we stopped for provisions at a shop outside Croydon, Andrew (the husband) suddenly exclaimed with glee that we were just down the road from the Selsdon Park hotel. It turned out that this was the place Edward Heath went with his shadow cabinet in early 1970 for a brainstorming session.

Harold Wilson declared that this was where Selsdon Man was created, an uncouth Neanderthal intent on building “a system of society for the ruthless and the pushing, the uncaring”. Luckily it was not thought be worth a detour. That night we reached Ashdown House. Yes, on the edge of Ashdown Forest, a stick’s throw from Pooh Corner, lies Boris Johnson’s former prep school. Here we were reliably informed that Boris did Greek before breakfast. Next year we are going to Jarrow.

Lodge appeal

I was upset when we got home to read about the travails of the Travelodge hotels and their threatened closure. The ones on A roads outside small towns are apparently most at risk. We stayed in a particularly accommodating Travelodge near Hailsham (another Tory name) on the A22. It was the only hotel that had space, a family room for four cost £68 and they kindly allowed us to keep the bikes in our room. We were woken in the middle of the night by the sound of gushing water. I thought someone might have attempted suicide in the room above. Andrew just urged me to go back to sleep but it seemed possible to me that the ceiling would collapse on top of the kids.

I went downstairs to raise the alarm. A friendly man who was dealing with the laundry as well as the front desk assured me it was a broken gutter.

Are you local?

Back in my ward of Highgate, north London, a border dispute has broken out. It is being borne in on me that a lot of politics is about territory and who controls it, and the coalition government’s Localism Act allows this to be played out on a micro level. What the new act does is allow local groups of people to have a say in planning policy for their neighbourhood. This might make sense in a country village but is hard in London. For, in order to define a neighbourhood, the forums, as the groups are called, have to draw up maps and therein lies the rub. In my ward, Highgate Neighbourhood Forum (at the top of the hill) has decided to include Highgate Cemetery and Waterlow Park on its map. The adjoining Dartmouth Park Neighbourhood Forum (also in my ward) is not sure that is fair. And what’s worse, Dartmouth Park is facing a possible incursion by Kentish Town Neighbourhood Forum on its southern border a few streets away. Various treaties will have to be negotiated.

Six feet under

I can see why anyone might want to have Highgate Cemetery on their territory. The more modern, eastern part, home to Karl Marx, Ralph Miliband and Philip Gould, is wonderful in its way, full of north London poets, thinkers and painters. Wandering round the graves feels a bit like being at a radical fantasy cocktail party. But the jewel is the old cemetery on the west side of the road. I was lucky enough to be in a group taken round the other day with Ian Dungavell, director of the Victorian Society, who starts as chief executive of the cemetery on 1 September.

The cemetery is stuffed full of Victorian mausoleums. Radclyffe Hall is here, with flowers still laid frequently at the door of her tomb, and so is the pre-Raphaelite muse Lizzie Siddal, wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who subsequently had her grave dug up to retrieve some unpublished poems he had buried with her in the first transports of grief. Plots there are like gold dust but dear Beryl Bainbridge has found her way in and so has Alexander Litvinenko.

Caps don’t fit

In the less enchanted world of the living, so-called welfare reform is about to hit like a tsunami. I am chairing a panel on the subject and it is difficult to understand how harsh the consequences are going to be. Many of the people affected have been in denial. They don’t respond to letters and council officers are now going out to visit them. Localism means that from April 2013 Camden Council is going to be forced to implement benefit caps through housing benefit: that is, not paying it at all to anyone who is getting more than £500 a week of other benefit (likely to affect Camden families on benefit that have four children or more).

These families will probably be forced out of their London homes and resettled in Luton, Leicester or Bradford, away from friends, support networks and familiar schools. I find it astonishing how many people say that if you are on benefit you shouldn’t have more than two children. But what if you lose your job, or your partner is beating you up? And anyway, what’s wrong with children?

Dark is rising

In the current world of the “ruthless and the pushing, the uncaring”, it is women who are being most affected, as if supporting women is something that can only be done in good times.

We in Camden have set up an equality task force to look at equality across the board. Recently, what shocked me most, though, is the restriction being put on women over the age of 25 getting contraception. It has not yet happened in Camden, but the latest report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health says older women in other parts of London, including Haringey and Tower Hamlets, are being refused treatment by walk-in contraceptive clinics and forced to go to their GP. This can be a problem if your GP is against contraception on religious grounds, or you work and can’t get an emergency appointment outside working hours.

As someone who grew up with the idea that you had a right to choose your contraceptives, I see this as a return to the Dark Ages, and no one is kicking up a public fuss about it.

Sally Gimson is a Labour councillor for Highgate, Camden

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.