Keeping an eye on the teenagers

There is a deep unease towards teenagers at the moment. Perhaps it is a backlash against the laissez

A warning poster appeared in my local supermarket last week: "No flour or eggs will be sold to anyone under the age of 16." Visions arose of long queues at the checkouts, youthful-looking customers desperate to get a last-minute Victoria sponge in the oven, screaming at staff that they were well past the age of consent. What on earth was behind this poster? Is there a new baking method that produces crack cocaine? Or have teenagers worked out how to get high on home-made pancake mix?

Sadly, no. It was just another strange symptom of the nanny state, an attempt to rain on the Halloween parade. While I have never seen the damage done by flour-throwing trick-or-treaters - and, who knows, maybe it can be substantial - banning the sale of these items to under-16s seems pathetic and draconian. There are plenty of other shops where they can buy these items anyway.

What if they are legitimate shoppers, running an errand for their parents? Or even children who care for and cook for their own parents? And surely, if you were the sort of person who was going to wreak Asbo-inducing havoc with domestic comestibles, you would soon enough come up with another, far worse plan?

Still, we shouldn't be surprised. It is not easy to keep up with what is legal these days. There are all sorts of recent new prohibitions - no smoking indoors, no cigarettes for the under-18s, no biscuits for fat children. Barely 24 hours goes by without a new law that forbids you from doing something today which was perfectly acceptable yesterday.

Of course, no one condones teenagers harassing old people, defacing other people's property or even messing each other up in the street. But you have to imagine what it must be like to be a 16-year-old these days. These prohibitions must make adults - and the state - come across as hectoring, terrified and insecure.

The policing of teenage behaviour is becoming desperate. In a recent newspaper article, parents anonymously revealed how they log on to their teenage children's Facebook pages and snoop on their text messages and emails. In their minds, their children's safety was paramount. As far as they were concerned, this overrode any notions of betrayal of trust. But several had crossed a line without realising it.

One father proudly boasted about how he had posed as another teenager online to get his 15-year-old daughter to disclose details about her sex life to her new internet "friend". He eventually revealed himself and prevented her from having sex with an older man. You have to wonder which is the more traumatising: having sex at too young an age or finding yourself making friends with your father when he is posing as a teenager in a chat room.

There is a deep unease towards older children and teenagers at the moment. Perhaps it is a backlash against the laissez-faire child-rearing popularised in the 1970s, when parents were told that children know best and thrive without rules and regulations. But while it has always been extremely doubtful that these hippie attitudes were taken up in many households, none theless they have entered popular myth.

In the 1990s, this morphed into the "blame the parents" riff that is now standard. It is a dangerous argument because, if you extend it to its logical conclusion, often what it is really about is the residual belief that women should be at home looking after children.

The shopping list ban is part of this: it shows that, as a society, we don't trust children not to make a mess of even the smallest of things.

Too much supervision and suspicion, though, is just as dangerous as letting kids do whatever the hell they want. If I were a teenager - trusted with neither flour nor my own text messages - I would be deeply paranoid. Which would only make me want to go out and throw an egg in someone's face.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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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.