Blown away by the music

Observations on opera

Authorities in Vienna are planning to drive drunks and drug addicts from the city's main underground station, Karlsplatz, by the judicious use of the music for which the city has become renowned - opera.

For years, Vienna's homeless and down and outs have used the station as a social club: begging, hanging out and taking drugs in the underground walkways. Despite regular police crackdowns, petty crime has continued to soar. Social workers and CCTV have had little impact.

Now, the local council has a new tactic. Loudspeakers will pipe opera and classical music into the station, providing a calming, refined soundtrack and, officials hope, a gentler solution to the problem. "These sorts of people are not fans of such music. We believe they will not hang around," a council spokesperson said (perhaps a trifle snobbishly). But the "marginalised groups" will have a place to go. Special quiet rooms will be provided inside the station where they can gather, unharassed by Mozart and out of sight of the general public.

But there is more to it than that, says councillor Ursula Stenzel. "Vienna is the centre of classical music. Karlsplatz is near the opera house; it should be a place of art, but at the moment it is just a place of drugs. We want to do something to honour Viennese culture and the ambition of this place."

There is much to be proud of: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Johann Strauss, Junior and Senior, spent their formative years in Vienna. (What they would make of having their music deployed to ward off troublemakers is an interesting question.)

However, classical music was not always the preserve of the elite. Strauss Junior, the "Waltz King" was popular with all classes of Viennese society and conducted sell-out concert tours in Europe and America.

Today, tickets for the Vienna Opera House regularly sell for more than £100, and dinner jackets and diamonds are de rigueur. Still, for those unable to afford it, there is always Karlplatz station.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

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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.