Ladies get their mini-kicks

Just met by friend and neighbour Claudia at the shops and she seemed ever so excited. Had her husband, a barrister, been made a QC? Had they just had a really excellent Easter in Greece? Her first novel was about to be published?

I was trying to think what would stir the heart, bring pride in the voice to most well-brought-up, middle-class young mums of my acquaintance.
And didn't get anywhere near it.

The explanation was that someone from Arsenal had just rung to say that their daughter Bells, aged eight, would next week be training with the Under Nines. The phone call had come on a Sunday - not a training day. A real phone call. Not a duplicated note.

Wow, I said, that is brilliant. Which it is. I know how excited Mr and Mrs Rooney were when young Wayne, aged nine, was told that he had been accepted by Everton's School of Excellence. But I hadn't realised just how organised women's football has become. Well, it has at Arsenal.
Bells is a member of what Arsenal calls their Mini-Kickers for girls aged 5-8. On their website, it states that girls will be taught "ball manipulation, balance, agility and co-ordination in a fun, relaxed environment". They give a phone number, lots of details, anyone can apply, and it's all free. With the equivalent boys' versions, Prem clubs are far less open. They don't want to be inundated - or their young stars pinched by rivals.

The atmosphere in girls' football is more relaxed - the chance of them becoming millionaires is zilch - but nonetheless it is professional. They train hard and don't get many perks - though Bells has had a free Arsenal training top, a signed photo of Theo Walcott and met Faye White, one of Arsenal's and England's stars.

She goes training twice a week after school which involves her mum in a 45-minute drive each way, as it's in Hertfordshire. Most of the other mums in our area thinks she is mad, trailing all that way.

The next stage up from Mini-Kickers is the Centre of Excellence for girls aged 9-16. I rang the Arsenal press office to get details and they were forthcoming, but stressed that Mini-Kickers is basically for fun - the Centre of Excellence is for real. Three of their current players were recently picked for England Ladies to play against Holland Ladies.

Bells hopes she will graduate to the Centre of Excellence - and will become a professional. That's her ambition in life. Her mum, very sensibly, has not rubbished this, while pointing out the chances are slim.

When boys of this age join a famous club, at however humble a stage, they get carried away and their school work suffers. Claudia says that so far it has been a good thing - and Bells's self-esteem has been helped.

“I've told her we'll support her football career, as long as she doesn't get a tattoo and if, eventually, she has to go out with a footballer, to make
sure he's Spanish or Italian, not English."

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice

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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.