Having a house in Pepys Road, says John Lanchester in his new novel, Capital, "was like being in a casino in which you were guaranteed to be a winner". It was, he says, "the first time in history" that this had been true. Britain, he says, "had become a country of winners and losers, and all the people in the street, just by living there, had won."
The houses in Pepys Road, which doesn't actually exist, but which is like a lot of streets that do, are three-storey terraces. They were built, says Lanchester, at the end of the 19th century for the "aspirational, no-longer-poor". But now, he says, they're lived in by the people who can afford to buy them. Who, since each house is worth several million, are mostly bankers.
Capital is a snapshot of a capital city that has become obsessed by capital, and by the idea that the roof over your head racks up value while you sleep. It's a reminder of the way that homes, which have always been a "backdrop" to people's lives, have become "central actors in their own right". It's funny, and moving, and hard to put down, but most of us don't need a novel to remind us about the "winners" and "losers" in the property game. Most of us feel we see, and hear, about them every day.
The "winners" are the people who bought a flat, or a house, at a time when it was possible to buy a flat, or a house, without having to be, or marry, a banker. The winners, in other words, are almost all homeowners over the age of about 45. If they're quite a lot over 45 – if, for example, like Joan Bakewell, they're 78 – and happened to buy a house in an area that then became very, very fashionable, they might suddenly find that the house they bought 48 years ago for £12,000 is now worth at least £4m. They might then think, or even write in a newspaper column, that although they have a nice house, they aren't really rich. Or at least they aren't really rich enough to pay more tax.
Quite a few "winners" go to other people's houses, to eat things like beetroot risotto, and talk about how much their houses are worth. Sometimes, they talk about how terrible it is that their children can't get on the "housing ladder", or wouldn't have been able to if they hadn't managed to help, but sometimes they talk about what they're doing to their basements, and their lofts.
The "losers" are the people who want to find somewhere to live, but find that even a one-bedroom flat costs 10 or 15 times their salary. And who, even if they could get that kind of mortgage, couldn't afford the deposit. The "losers" are people who don't qualify for social housing, which is housing that's meant to be available at a rent that you don't have to be rich to afford, and so have to rent from private owners who charge as much as they can get. Which, it turns out, is often an awful lot. Which, in fact, is often much more than most people pay for their mortgage.
David Cameron is worried about the "losers". "You have," he said on Monday, "got the problem of two young people who are working hard, and because they can't get together a deposit of £40,000 or £50,000, they can't buy a home." He didn't say how he knew they were working hard, or whether he just meant that they had jobs, or what you were meant to do if you quite fancied getting a mortgage and happened to be single. But he had, he said, decided to take action. "We've got lenders who aren't lending," he said, "so builders can't build, and buyers can't buy." The Government, he said, had decided to "step in and help unblock the market".
What the Government has decided to do is to start a scheme, with banks, and developers, which will guarantee loans for new homes at 95 per cent. This means that buyers in London will need a deposit of about £17,500 for the average home, at the average price of £351,305, instead of the £70,000 they needed before. It means, apparently, that about 100,000 people who couldn't buy a home, now can.
What the Government has also decided to do is to "re-boot" a scheme that gives council tenants the right to buy their home at a reduced price. Sales of the "Right to Buy" scheme, which Margaret Thatcher introduced, had, apparently, dropped to 3,700 last year, from a peak of 84,000 less than 10 years before. The Government wants more council tenants to own their own homes, and is offering discounts of up to £75,000 each. It has also said it will build one new council home for each one that's sold.
Is this good? It's certainly good for the 100,000 "hard-working" people who may now be able to buy a nice, modern box, and it's good for the council tenants who will be able to make a big profit on the home where they've been lucky enough to pay quite a low rent. It's good for building contractors, and for the Eastern Europeans who will probably work on their sites. But it is, as Jack Dromey, who's the Shadow Housing Minister, and also Harriet Harman's husband, said on Monday, "too little, too late".
It's interesting that a Labour politician thought it was "too little, too late", because, while his party was in power, it built fewer homes than any government since the Second World War. It didn't start the "Right to Buy" scheme, but it didn't stop it, or replace the council houses. And it certainly didn't keep to its promise to end the cycle of "boom or bust" which turned homes into a ticking taxi meter no one wanted to turn off.
What Labour needed to do, which this Government also needs to do, is build lots and lots of homes. It needs to build, or encourage the building of, developments that will have houses, and flats, and warden-assisted homes, so that families, and single people, and older people, have some chance of living in what used to be known as a community. It needs to build enough homes so that property prices, and rents, go down.
This Government won't do it, and a Labour government won't do it, because it knows that people who own property are more likely to vote than those who don't. It knows that these people think that if something makes them poorer it's unfair, but if something makes them richer, it's not. Some of them even seem to think that if they made money through their home, they earned it. They seem to think that hard work is the same as luck.
These people seem to think that what you should feel if you borrow money from a bank to buy a flat, or house, is pride, and that what you should feel if you rent one, is shame. They seem to think that a house is the same as a dream.
A house isn't a dream. It's just where you live. And perhaps our dreams would be richer if our homes were worth less.
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